Part nine: In which an escape is made, groups gather together and new allies are found.

Varran

Kim slowly brought her head up, her eyes blinking open as she became aware of her surroundings. She was lying on a flat table, staring upward at the ceiling. She started a bit as she felt the table begin to move upward, her feet lowering toward the floor. She could feel tight straps pinning her to the surface of the table and flexed against them reflexively.

It took a moment for Kim to get the strength to look down at herself. The memories of what had been done to her by Jorbell were still high in her mind. The way he had expertly used a scalpel and a small torch to cut and light at her skin had been bad enough. The obvious delight he had taken in her pain and suffering made it all the worse. Taking a deep breath, Kim looked down at herself and blinked her eyes.

She blinked again, not quite understanding what she was seeing. Her clothing was still torn and ripped in a few places but the wounds she knew she had received on her arms were no longer there. And while there were aches, there wasn't any of the agony she had been feeling not too long before.

"Welcome back." Kim looked up to see Jorbell pacing before her, that twisted smile on his face. "To answer the question that is obviously on your feeble little mind," he continued. "Some time ago I made a little addition to my facilities here. A rather extensive healing system that can be used to heal what I did to you?"

"Why?" Kim glanced to her side to see Sean lying on a table next to her. She bit her lip as she saw the tear in his shirt, remembering his yells as Jorbell had cut a wide circle into his flesh. She turned her head away, not just to ignore the wound he had received but also not wanting to look at Sean now that he knew her true feelings for him. *God, I'm trapped on another planet at the mercy of a twisted torturer and all I can think of is how I've ruined my friendship with Sean.*

"Why?" Jorbell repeated, smirking at Sean. "Do you know the drawback of torturing someone, my young friend? You can only do so much to the human body before it gives out. Frankly, finding an uninjured space to work my skills gets more difficult as time goes on. With this facility, I can cut you, heal you, cut you, heal you and so on over and over again."

"You trying to make yourself sound tough?" Sean snorted. "Please. You're talking to two residents of Jerry Springer's home town, pal."

"No question who's got the major tech here," Kim remarked.

Jorbell shrugged. "We deserve such technology more than the masses. We are the elite, after all."

"Uh huh," Sean sniffed. "So you're the master race and the rest of the poor, pathetic people don't deserve the chance at a decent life?"

Jorbell gave him a strange look, as if he recognized a reference Sean had just made. "Something like that," he allowed. He craned his head behind him. "Eril!"

For the first time, Sean and Kim noticed the red-skinned guard standing in the shadows. He came forward, his face still drawn as he bowed his head. "Yes, sir?"

Jorbell waved a hand at the two cops. "Take them to the cells. Let them rest up a bit while I..." He chuckled. "Reenergize myself."

There was a flicker of what looked like disgust in Eril's eyes. He hid it by bowing his head again as he moved forward. His hand went to his holster as he pulled out what appeared to be a gun of some sort. The barrel was sharp, as if a bayonet had been attached to it but Sean and Kim were both willing to bet that bullets were the last thing it fired. He kept the gun aimed at the duo as Eril hit a switch on a nearby console. The straps holding the two back came loose, sliding off and allowing them to move again.

"This way," Eril commanded, waving his gun for emphasis. Stumbling a bit, Sean and Kim followed. As Kim staggered, Sean reached out a hand but Kim brushed it aside, wanting to stand on her own. The two made their way out with Eril following from a safe distance, the gun pointed at their backs. Jorbell watched them and shook his head. There was something about those two, he knew. The way they'd spoken and looked at his insignia. Almost like they found it...familiar.

*****

"You okay?" Sean asked.

"Fucking peachy," Kim muttered back. She and Sean were walking down the dark hallways leading away from the torture room. Like the rest of Fahn's palace, it was a mix between Old English-style mortar and more modern architecture, round lights that lined the walls throwing a dim illumination on their surroundings.

"Guess Mel Brooks was right," Sean muttered. "When you die at the palace, you *die* at the palace." His partner was silent and Sean looked at her with a more caring expression. "Kim," Sean stated. "I'm being serious. Are you okay?"

Kim was silent before looking up at him. "It hurt, Sean. It really hurt."

Sean knew she wasn't just talking about the physical wounds. She wasn't just talking about Fahn invading her mind. She was talking about having her deepest secret laid bare before him by someone else. Sean wanted to say something but honestly couldn't think of anything appropriate at a time like this. Not that he was exactly used to having a time like this before.

"Halt." The two police officers exchanged confused glances before stopping. His gun still trained on them, Eril moved past the duo and to a door in the side of the wall. He moved his hand toward a keypad and quickly pressed several of the buttons. As Kim and Sean watched with curiosity, the door slid open to reveal what looked for all the world like a long metal pole extending down a longer tunnel. Eril hit another button and a set of panels withdrew to show a series of crude but effective robotic arms. The arms reached out to attach three odd metal frames to the pole. Each looked like part of a bicycle, a seat extending outward with the ends showing wheels that locked around the pole.

Eril turned to the two and pointed at the seats. "Get in and hit the red button," he began to say to in a rushed tone. "Make sure you're in the seat and locked in before you do. Once that's done, hang on tight because it's a fast ride to the bottom."

"The bottom?" Kim asked in obvious confusion.

"A secret dock near one of the underground rivers," Eril told her. "Follow the water flow and it should lead you into the city itself. Just keep an eye out and a clear mind and you should be all right." He held his gun out to Sean. "Here."

Sean stared at it, then back up at Eril. "What?"

"Take it," Eril repeated. "And hit me over the head with it."

"Why?"

"Because," Eril said as if explaining something to a very small child. "If you shoot me with it, I will die. This way, I won't die. I can simply say you got the drop on me and managed to escape."

"No, no, I mean, why help us?" Sean pressed. "What's in it for you?"

"Yeah," Kim chimed in, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What's the plan? Let us escape and then follow us to wherever the others are?"

Eril raised an eyebrow. "Is everyone on your planet this paranoid?"

"It's not paranoia if they're really after you," Sean stated. "And trust me, they're after us."

"They won't be for a while if you get moving now," Eril said. "Take the gun and go while you have the chance."

Kim stared at him. "And armed with just a gun and our good looks, we're supposed to make it through an alien city?"

Eril looked away. "I'm doing what I can. Don't ask for more."

"Fine." Sean reached out and gripped Eril by the throat, yanking him in close. Narrowing his eyes, Sean put on his best "bad cop" voice. "You give us more than this or so help me-----"

With blinding speed, Eril yanked Sean's arm off his throat and held it back to the breaking point. The guard's own eyes flashed with anger as he glared at the startled Sean. "I am helping you. But I have my limits."

A blast of energy streaked past them and smacked into the wall. Eril spun around to see a pair of armored guards before him, both having seen him offering a weapon and a way out to two prisoners. Snarling a curse, Eril fired with his gun. He hit one of the guards, the being collapsing in a heap. The other wisely decided reinforcements were needed and ran off to raise an alarm.

"And there's mine," Eril sighed. He turned toward the two startled officers and shook his head.. "It looks like I'll be giving you that help after all." He brushed past them to move toward the pole. He sat himself into the lowest of the three pulleys, snapping a belt around his waist and his feet into prepared holders. "Take the other two," he ordered.

Not seeing many other options at this point, Kim and Sean did what he asked. Sean took the one above Eril, Kim stepping on his shoulders in order to reach the other. Locking himself in, Sean reached up to make sure Kim's feet were in the holders. Kim gave her partner a little smile as Sean looked down at Eril and gave a nod. "What is this, anyway?" Kim asked.

"Emergency escape system," Eril told them. "The landing area isn't that well-guarded so this should be an easy way out." He shrugged. "Provided it still works."

"If it still----" Kim started.

"Hang on," the guard said as he reached his hand toward a button on his pulley. He pressed down and watched it blink. He glanced back up at the two humans and took a breath. "You might want to prepare yourselves. This can be something of a------"

The locks holding the wheels to the pole released and the trio shot down the pole. Kim and Sean both let out yells at the sudden drop, both feeling like they were on a wild amusement park ride. Both were rather glad they hadn't had anything to eat for a while because they knew it would be scattered along the walls of the tunnel. The wind whipped around them as they swept down the tunnel. Kim and Sean could only now realize that the pole was all that was holding them from a fall of several hundred feet.

Eril was looking down, sensing the bottom and making quick calculations. He reached his finger toward the button, waiting until just the right moment to press it. As the floor grew closer and it seemed impossible for the seats to stop in time, Sean opened his mouth to let out a yell. Before he could, Eril hit the button. Sparks flew as the wheels locked in with a braking system a Formula One racecar would envy. Sean and Kim both felt their stomachs slam toward their throats as the pulley came to a sudden stop only two feet over the floor.

Unlocking himself, Eril pulled out of the pulley and reached up to help the two police officers out of their own pulleys. On the ground, Eril led them toward one part of the tight and circular chamber. He cracked open a door enough to look out and see if anyone was around. Satisfied there wasn't, he pushed the door open and led the way into what appeared to be a cavern with a large river bisecting it. Noting the chill in the air, Sean turned toward Eril. "We're deep, aren't we?"

"That's the way Varran is," the guard shrugged. "It's been built upon itself, layers upon layers. The natural waterways have been adapted, new causeways built, it makes navigating a bit difficult." He swiftly rushed to the side of the river where Kim and Sean could see a pack of boats lying ready to go. They were similar to Earth designs, bullet shaped with large foils lifting the main body off the water a few feet. Eril slid into the driver's seat of one, motioning for Kim and Sean to get in. The two did as Eril's fingers darted around the control console, entering a code that soon had the boat roaring to life.

Kim and Sean stood next to Eril and saw how the boat had no wheel, just a control panel. "Nice," Sean remarked. "I like the mix of modern tech and old style, it's really..."

"God, Sean, don't turn into that McDaniels guy," Kim groaned. She and Sean watched as Eril maneuvered the boat toward the far end of the cavern. He glanced at the two and raised an eyebrow. "You might want to sit down."

"We can handle it," Sean said as he and Kim gripped the front console. Shrugging, Eril hit two buttons. The first was to set up the magnetic field along his feet to keep him locked in place. The second was to send the boat rocketing forward, Kim and Sean yelling as they flew backward, landing in a heap on the floor. They were barely aware of the blast of air as the boat came into the still dark late night.

Sean crawled upward, digging his fingers into the floor of the boat as he tried to pull himself up. He looked up at Eril, who stood perfectly in place, his hair whipping in the wind. "You...could have...warned us!" Sean yelled out, trying to make himself heard over the rush of air.

"I did," Eril reminded him. He glanced behind him, his eyes scanning the riverwake behind him. "No pursuers yet," he muttered, more to himself than Sean. "We can hopefully have a good head start before they realize where we've gone."

Sean and Kim had managed to pull themselves into seated positions, leaning against the seats in the boat's back. They could see that the waterway was quite deep as the massive buildings of the Varran cityscape towered above them, dark shapes whipping about as they roared down the waterway.

Kim stared up at Eril, one thing still bothering her. "Why are you helping us?"

"I have my reasons," Eril stated. "For now, just be satisfied with that."

"I still want to know------"

A whooshing sound filled the air and suddenly a geyser of water blasted up with a dash of flame to it. Kim and Sean instinctively ducked as Eril snapped his head to the left. Oncoming from a smaller waterway in that direction were three boats of similar design. The difference was, each was packed with several armored soldiers and each boasted a large cannon attached to the center, each one pointed right at Eril's boat.

"Something tells me your buddies aren't too happy about your giving us parole," Sean dryly remarked.

"Hang on and keep your heads down," Eril ordered.

"What do you think we've been doing the last five minutes?!" Kim demanded. Eril didn't answer, he simply began hitting the buttons to send the boat spinning about the waterway. He swiftly steered the boat toward a smaller waterway to the right. It was much tighter than the one they had just been on, the pursuing boats forced to enter one at a time. On the one hand, it meant there was only one boat able to fire at Eril. On the other, there wasn't a lot of room to maneuver which was why Eril was trying to put as much distance as possible between him and his pursuers.

Looking over his shoulder, Eril could see the pursuing boat preparing to fire. "Hang on," he ordered as he sent the boat slamming to the left. One ski hit the side of the wall and raked upward, tilting the boat to the right. Kim and Sean let out a yell as they tumbled to the side, trying to keep themselves from falling out as the boat tilted. A blast of energy ripped only inches away, firing down the waterway before their boat, impacting against a small metal tower on the side. The tower collapsed forward, slamming into the waterway in front of Eril's boat.

Eril had always prided himself as a man capable of swift decision-making, particularly in times of stress. That ability came to the forefront. With only a few seconds to act, Eril's hands flew over the console. The boat righted itself, then settled back, the engines lowering toward the water. As the fallen tower came closer, Eril hit the engines and even with the field at his feet, he nearly flew backward as the skids of the boat hit the upturned side of the tower and shot upward.

Kim and Sean yelled yet again as the boat flew for several feet before smacking down into the water, spinning for a bit before Eril could set it back on course. The first pursuer tried to duplicate the feat. Unfortunately, the added weight of the soldiers inside kept it from achieving the same altitude. The boat tipped over, scattering soldiers in the water as it smacked upside down into the passage. The following boats, who had been unable to see what was going on, had no time to prepare themselves. The massive explosion that echoed behind Eril's boat led the passengers know what had happened.

Eril's face was slightly drawn. Kim and Sean could both see that taking out some of his fellow soldiers wasn't easy for him, even if they were trying to kill him at the time. "We're almost safe," he calmly told the two officers. "One more turn and------"

He stopped as the boat swung toward the waterway he had been aiming for. Blocking his path were a half-dozen boats, cannons primed and ready. With only the barest of pauses, Eril sent the boat rocketing straight ahead, pouring on the speed. "How do you know there won't be guys down here?" Kim asked.

"I know." Something in the way he said it made Kim and Sean decide they wanted to know just what was coming. They managed to crawl up to the front of the boat and peek their heads up. Their eyes widened as they saw a waterfall dead ahead of them, the edge coming closer by the second.

"I'd recommend taking a breath," Eril said just as the boat shot over the edge of the waterfall and toward the churning water three hundred feet below.

*****

The Nuelian Forests

What struck Maximus the most upon seeing the home of the Peritusans was how familiar it was. Having traveled the world quite a bit during his 2000 years, the Roman had seen several forest-set colonies and villages and could see some similarities in the way the village was set up.

The main bulk of cottages, huts and other structures were interwoven into the massive trees. The bridges and stairways had been actually carved into the trees, creating an interesting natural appearance that enhanced the qualities of the area. Bridges of both suspension and straight type crisscrossed to allow easy access to the various areas and somewhat primitive but efficient pulley elevators allowed the inhabitants to reach the ground.

At the very top of the center tree of the area was the Grand Hall. In actuality, the Hall area spread out over four treetops, so close together they seemed to be one giant trunk. The Hall appeared to have been grown more than built, the massive circular seating area reminding Maximus a great deal of the Coliseum. The center was a raised platform for meetings and religious ceremonies, catching both moon and sun perfectly.

Maximus could see the Great Hall from his place. It was one of the largest of the personal huts, set up for the ruler of the tribe, who, in this case, was Dullrena. It was opulent by the standards of the village but Maximus had seen better. The large open chambers with the natural brown roof made Maximus (for some bizarre reason) feel like he had wandered into a home right out of a Tolkien book. He could see various statues and symbols scattered about but what they signified was beyond him. He reached for one, a statue of a warrior holding a speak but an Irish brogue stopped him.

"I wouldn't do that, laddie. Dull doesn't quite like her things being fondled."

"There are quite a few dirty places one can take that line," Maximus replied as he turned toward Liam. The leprechaun lounged lazily in a large chair, unmindful of the pair of spear-holding guards who glared at him. Or, Maximus suspected, he was aware but believed he could take the two apart without much trouble.

"So, you and Robin were here some two thousand years ago and met Dullrena?" he asked.

"Yep, we got here, they got together, it was hot and heavy until she got ready to kill us," Liam replied. "Until recently, that's sort of been the way with Robbie's romances."

"Is she some sort of witch or something?" Maximus asked. "Is that why she looks so young?"

Liam shook his head. "Actually, no. Her race is just extremely long-lived. Truth to tell, when she and Robbie were together, she looked to be in her early twenties. She ages, just at a slower rate than normal Earthlings."

Maximus stroke his chin. "Do you think they'll help us? This tribe, I mean."

"Tough to say," Liam admitted. "The Peritusans have always been pretty closed-off, kept to themselves a lot. No telling what side they'll fall on when the shit goes down. Never underestimate Robbie's conversational skills, though. I'm pretty sure he can get her to at least listen to a pitch."

"It would probably take time," Maximus observed.

"Hope it's soon," Liam remarked. "The others are going to need all the help they can get. They're out of their element here."

Maximus looked toward the closed door that led to Dullrena's private chambers. "Just what do you suppose they're talking about?" He sniffed. "At least I'm hoping it's just talking."

"Oh, no worries on that score," Liam adamantly stated. "Robbie's got someone he loves way too much to let himself slide back with some old flame. Not to mention one who tried to burn him alive."

"Always nice to have someone to love," Maximus muttered under his breath. "I haven't let myself do that since..." His voice trailed off. As much as Liam was starting to grow on him (up to a reasonable point, of course), he still didn't feel comfortable discussing his past history with him.

Liam knew, however. "Been a long time but it still hurts, doesn't it?"

Maximus looked at him. Something in the way he spoke let Maximus know he was listening to someone who knew that pain. "How long?" he asked.

Liam tried to put on a show of not being in pain at the remembrance, a show that didn't fool the Roman for a moment. "Little over 800 years. She died...badly."

"So did mine," Maximus stated. "And my son."

"That's a pain I know too." At Maximus' look of surprise, Liam shrugged. "Ye live a few thousand years and be married to nearly 250 women, ye've gotta drop a litter somewhere."

Maximus looked away. "It's hard."

"I know," Liam told him. "Always comparing other women to her, even if you don't want to. The little things, like a name or a place or even a scent that bring the memories rushing back to you. Visiting her grave every year and wondering why her and not you. I know it, laddie. I know it all."

Maximus fixed him with a sad look. "Does it get any easier? Over time?"

Liam stared at him. "I'll let you know when I figure it out."

A silence fell, both men realizing there really wasn't much to say at that moment.

*****

The chamber was just as Robin remembered it. The large and soft hammock set along one wall, the small shrine area in one corner, the rock-like tub in the other, the raised platform and the large circular bed set on it. And, just as he remembered, Dullrena's naked body was pure perfection. Despite the years she'd put on, she was more beautiful than ever with her full breasts, soft curves and unblemished skin. Robin took that all in with just a brief glance before averting his eyes.

"Really, Goodfellow," Dullrena said in a mocking tone. "It's nothing you haven't seen before." She smirked as she turned toward her closet and rummaged about. "I know you've been remembering it more than once."

"Not for a long time, Dull," Robin said, fighting the urge to glance at that tempting backside. He closed his eyes and brought up an image of another beautiful form he knew quite well. *Thanks, Amy.*

Opening his eyes, Robin turned to see Dullrena now dressed in a long and flowing silver robe, tied loosely so a severe dip in her cleavage could still be seen. "You know," she said in that same mocking tone. "There are many a male who would gladly give their lives in order to see what you just saw."

"Whoop-de-shit," Robin sniffed. "I'm not here to talk over old times, Dull. We need some help."

Dullrena rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to help you, Robin. We keep our peace on our own, without the help of those lesser tribes."

"Funny," Robin remarked. "As far as the Lizardon and the Grantons are concerned, you're the lesser tribe."

A flash of anger went through Dullrena's eyes. "Remember where you are, Goodfellow," she hissed. "Keep a cordial tongue. If you can."

"I'm not exactly crazy about being back in your homestead either, Dullrena," Robin replied. "I've got someone waiting for me back home."

"Ah, your latest conquest?" Dullrena needled. "What makes her different than me?"

"She's an Amazon witch, she's a teenager, she's got a good head on her shoulders and one more thing."

"Really?" Dullrena appeared to be highly amused. "And what would that be?"

"I love her."

For the first time, Dullrena's cool and arrogant attitude appeared to fade, her face actually seeming to show concern. "And..." she softly said. "And you did not for me?"

Robin rolled his eyes. "Come on, Dullrena, we both knew it was just a brief fling. Contrary to what you may think, you are not God's gift to the male species of the universe."

Dullrena turned, trying to hide the slight hurt on her face as she wrapped her robe tighter around herself. "Well, regardless of your current paramour," she began in a tighter voice than before. "I am still not inclined to give you any help. We are not one for sticking our necks out, Robin. We will not be giving any aid to you or your friends. No one will simply walk into here and---"

A fist knocked hard against the door as both Dullrena and Robin started. "Enter," Dullrena commanded. The door slid open to reveal one of her guards, his face concerned. "We have intruders," he stated. "And they have one of ours with them, wounded."

"Guess it's time to set up a visitor's center, Dull," Robin couldn't help remarking.

*****

The elevator system was quite faster than Maximus had expected. In only minutes, he, Robin, Liam, Dullrena and a trio of guards were on the ground and marching toward the edge of the village. "Where did they come from?" Dullrena hissed.

"They came from the Northern end of the Forest," one of her guards replied. "We found them with one of the young ones. She was badly wounded."

"The Lizardon, no doubt," Dullrena hissed. "Damn them. If they continue to press on our borders like this..."

"Fahn is squeezing them out of their own territory," the guard pointed out. "They need to go somewhere."

"I don't care," Dullrena bit back. "I won't have this, not one bit."

Liam leaned in toward Robin. "I wonder if her species has permanent PMS."

Ignoring the comment, Robin turned toward Maximus. "What do you think? Some of Fahn's guys decided to show up and attack us?"

Maximus didn't answer. He simply smiled as a familiar feeling came over him. "That," he said, his eyes twinkling. "Or the kids are a little more capable than your friend gave them credit for."

Robin and Liam both frowned until they caught sight of the intruders. "I should have known," Liam muttered. "Ye can't take a British Immortal anywhere without problems."

"Don't start," Robin said. He looked back over toward where Elizabeth, Mel, Tarring, Marybeth and Lucy stood. Lying on a makeshift carrier was their "patient," the young warrior still looking quite pale. A makeshift tourniquet was tied around her mid-section in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Dullrena stared at her, then up at the newcomers. "Which of you did this?" she demanded.

"We didn't hurt her," Lucy said. "We found her like this."

"I meant which of you dared treat her wounds without another of my people present?" Dullrena's eyes blazed with fire while her voice was ice cold.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "We didn't exactly have time to look for one of your people," she barked out. "I was trying to save that girl's life."

"What gave you that right?" Dullrena demanded.

Elizabeth's nostrils flared. "I am a doctor," she hissed. "A healer. It was my duty to help this girl."

Dullrena looked over them, then over to Robin. "I'm assuming they're with you?"

"Please, don't lump us with him," Marybeth said in a half-begging tone.

Dullrena looked back at them, glaring at the group. "We do not accept outsiders here," she bit out.

"Hey, watch it lady!" Lucy yelled. She hiked a thumb over at Mel. "This happens to be the rightful king of the place!"

"Oh, God..." Mel groaned as he put a hand over his eyes. Dullrena stared at Lucy in confusion, then at Mel. She peered closely at him, tilting her head to the side as she studied his features. "That face," she whispered. "Familiar somehow...Much like..." Her eyes shot wide open. "Like his father," she said, her voice lined with shock.

She looked back at Robin, who nodded in confirmation. She then spun back, marched forward and yanked Mel up by the front of his shirt. "You dare come here?!" she hissed. "Do you have any idea of what horrors Fahn will bestow upon us if he knows you're here? He'll raze the entire forest just to get at you!"

"Well, sorry to inconvenience you," Mel spoke up. "We'll just get going then..."

"You are not leaving," Dullrena broke in. "Fahn's forces may be watching the roads out. If they find you leaving, they'll come after me. I will not jeopardize my people. Not even for you."

"Well," Lucy spoke up. "Nice to see you've got the people behind you, Mel."

"And I wondered why my father couldn't get help," Mel sighed as his homecoming took yet another push in the wrong direction.

*****

The Drazonia Caverns

"How long have we been going down this path?" Katie asked.

"Well, Shirley's moved from Lloyd Webber to Sondheim so it's been a while," Nicky sighed. He looked back at Shirley, who was following the two while humming "Children Will Listen" under her breath. Nicky sighed and rubbed some sweat off his forehead. "God, is it me or has it gotten hotter in here?"

"Hey, you want to take your shirt off, I'm fine with it," Shirley smiled. She turned to Katie and quickly added, "That goes for you too." She threw back her head and started to sing out. "I want to be an airborne Ranger, I want to fly through the sky..."

Nicky stared at her. "You've seen 'The Breakfast Club?'"

"Oh, yeah," Shirley told him. "I loved Ally Sheedy in that."

"Told you," Nicky muttered to his wife.

"I'm in hell, I'm simply in hell," Katie groaned, rubbing her face. She glanced over at Shirley and was surprised to see the woman pulling a large sheet of paper out of her pants pocket and looking down at it. "What is that?"

"Oh, my life insurance policy," Shirley answered her. "I'm just checking over it to see if dying in a cavern on an alien planet is covered."

Nicky stopped and stared at her. "You carry your life insurance policy with you?"

Shirley shrugged as she looked over the paper. "Well, seeing as I have no one in my life really worth a damn to me, I've written that whoever finds my corpse is the beneficiary. Kind of give something back, you know?"

The McDaniels simply stared at her. "You are an incredibly strange woman," Nicky said.

"Thank you," Shirley replied as she folded the paper up and placed it back into her pocket. The trio continued on their way, the dim lighting inside the cavern barely enough to let them see where they were going.

"I'm confused," Shirley suddenly stated.

"What a shock," Nicky muttered.

"Are we still moving down or are we rising?" Shirley went on. "I've sort of lost track with the way the paths have been."

"For once, she's got a point, hon," Katie said. "The terrain's so rocky and the tunnels so dark, it's hard to tell what's uphill or down."

"Just this last corner and I know-----"

"You've said for the last five corners, Nicky," Katie sighed. "I know you usually have a good sense of direction but in a place like this, I think it's gone seriously out of whack."

Nicky sighed as he turned the corner of the tunnel before him. He stopped and then looked back at his wife with a smile. "Maybe not," he said in a much lighter tone. "I see light at the end of the tunnel."

"Well, I'm glad to see you so upbeat," Katie said.

Nicky shook his head and pointed at the cavern before him. "No, no, I mean, I see light at the end of *this* tunnel!" Katie and Shirley exchanged a look, then walked over to where Nicky was. Sure enough, about twenty feet ahead of them was a long tunnel with a light on the other end of it. Katie paused to smell the fresh air wafting down at them. "Oh, thank God, we're almost out!" "Aw, nuts," Shirley suddenly muttered. "I never got to sing 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho!'"

"Oh, good," Katie muttered. "I was near the snapping point already." The trio walked down the tunnel, heading toward the open end. The fresh air was flowing down the tunnel, making them all feel good. They finally reached the end of the tunnel and paused for a breath.

It took a moment for their eyes, after so long in darkness, to adjust to the natural light. They could see that they were standing by the edge of a flowing river with a large forest before them. "Wow," Katie said, sounding impressed. "And I thought Yosemite was something."

"Reminds me of that trip we took to the Pacific Northwest," Nicky said. "The spotted owl trip?"

"Ah, yes," Katie said, smiling at the memory. "That night under the stars. At least it wasn't like that trip to Alaska when we went whale-spotting."

Shirley looked at them in mild surprise. "You two really love animals, don't you?" she said.

Nicky shrugged. "They're better than most people. They don't pollute the land or create weapons of destruction or slaughter each other for no reason. They've been around longer than we have. And I firmly believe they'll be around long after."

"That's the great thing about nature," Katie said. "It's always truthful. People lie. Books can lie. But nature always tells the truth."

"Wow," Shirley said. "That's deep. You ought to send that in to Reader's Digest."

"I will," Katie retorted. "Along with my entry on you for their 'the most unforgettable character I ever met' section."

"Thank you," Shirley beamed.

Before Katie could groan, a loud rumbling sound came from above. As one, the three looked up to see that the rock wall above them climbed for nearly fifty feet. They could also see a shuffling of movement near the top of the wall seconds before several boulders began to fall down toward them.

"Shit!" Nicky yelled as he turned and grabbed Katie. Shirley let out a yelp herself as they tried to back away. Without warning, each felt a large and strong hand grab them and yank them away much faster than they could have run on their own. The three felt themselves shoved down to the ground as a horde of rocks smashed to the ground where they had been standing only moments before. In seconds, tons of rock were sealing off the tunnel they had just exited.

The rumble finally faded and the three humans managed to rise and brush themselves up. They stared at the boulders, realizing the grisly fate they'd just avoided. They then turned to face their rescuers...and even for a trio of people who had seen quite a lot in the last few hours, this was unusual.

Each figure appeared to be about six feet tall, with large builds and muscles. They were hairless, which wasn't surprising considering that their skin appeared to be made out of solid rock. It was mostly a gray color, although a few of them sported brown and even reddish skin. For some odd reason, Katie believed that the darker the skin, the older the being. Each had five fingers that could appear to form a fist the size of a grapefruit. Set bright against the rocky hides were a pair of large white eyes, each one fixed on the three humans.

"Whoa," Shirley whispered. "It's a Thing convention. Man, Marybeth will be sorry she missed this."

Swallowing, Nicky stepped forward to look right at the head of the leader of this odd group. "We come...in peace..." he carefully said. "Peace. We mean you...no harm. We want...to be...friends." He held out his hands and hoped they got his message.

The leader of the group blinked, then opened his mouth and spoke out in a surprisingly clear and concise voice. "If I was incapable in the least of understanding a single word of your language, what gives you the idea that speaking it more slowly will do anything?"

Katie leaned in toward her husband. "I think that translation spell Robin had is still working," she jibed at him.

"So..." Nicky said, trying to get his dignity back. "Who are you?"

"We are called the Granton," the being said. "I am Berok, leader of my tribe. We have been...on the move, as you might say."

"Let me guess," Nicky said dryly. "A certain emperor is putting the squeeze on your people, right?" Berok took a moment to decipher the meaning of that statement and then nodded. "Yes, that is as good a way to put it as any." He looked over at the boulders, then at Nicky. "I believed you and your friends were in need of aid."

"Thanks," Nicky said. "Um, were you just passing by?"

"Actually, they were with me," a more normal-sounding voice spoke up. The Grantons parted to allow Cal to step forward. He had a slight smirk on his face while the skin around one eye appeared to be turning blacker. "How's it hanging, guys?"

"Cal!" Nicky said. "I thought you left!"

"I was on my way when my conscience decided to pay a long overdue visit," Cal sighed.

Nicky smiled. "Just couldn't leave someone to die when you knew you could help, huh?"

"Don't let it get out, kay?" Cal groaned. "I decided to get back with you guys and see if we could figure this out together." He rubbed at his eye. "That was when my face introduced itself to Berok's fist."

"You were fortunate I pulled my blow," Berok said in a flat tone. "Otherwise, I would have caved in your skull."

"Thankfully, it's only these guys' skins that are thick," Cal said. "Once I woke up and explained what was going on, they were willing to help." He hiked a thumb back at the caves. "They've been stuck down in those caverns for years, know all the roads backward and forward. All the while, they've been looked down on and ignored by the rest of society." He sniffed. "Even here, they've got ghettos."

"Okay, let's not start that," Nicky quickly stated. He looked up at Berok. "Well, thank you very much for your help." He bit his lip. "Are you going to help us out anymore?"

Bekor paused, looking over the river and toward the forest ahead. He let out a rumbling sound that was apparently a sigh. "There is one place we may be able to go for sanctuary," he stated. "But I cannot promise you will receive a warm welcome."

"Gee, that would be such a switch today," Katie muttered under her breath.

Cal slapped his hands together. "Well, if we've got places to go, let's get going, then. Wanna lead the way, Bek?"

"As you wish, Nicky."

Cal shook his head. "No, no, I'm Cal."

Bekor looked him over before doing the equivalent of an eyebrow raising. "Oh. I'm sorry. You people all look alike to me."

Cal threw his hands up and yelled at the sky. "Great, even *here* I get it!"

*****

The Nuelian Forests

Lucy sighed as she stepped out onto the large wooden balcony. After quite a bit of arguing, Dullrena had finally (reluctantly) consented to allowing the new arrivals to stay on. They had been given an empty hut on one end of the village, with a rather impressive view of the forest. It was a view Lucy wasn't really appreciating.

She gasped and felt at her head as she once again felt the Buzz strike her. "God, does that ever stop?"

"I'm afraid not," a deep male voice answered her. She turned to see Maximus standing behind her, Elizabeth by his side. "But if you live long enough, you'll discover there are many levels of pain that you have to live with."

Lucy stared at him. "What kind of masochist would count how many levels of pain----"

"Six hundred and forty-two at last count."

"Ask and answered," Lucy sighed. She crossed her arms and paced away from the walkway, toward the hut. "Nice place," she remarked off-handedly. "It's a shame this Fahn guy wants to destroy it."

"That's the way dictators are," Elizabeth sighed. "I should know, I'm used to dealing with power-mad people."

"From two hundred years of Immortality?"

"No, from two years of working with Weaver and Romano."

"Good point," Lucy agreed. She shook her head as she faced her fellow doctor. "So, what are we supposed to do?"

Elizabeth glanced around as she rubbed at her chin. "I'm hoping there's a quiet place around here where I can start on the basics of dueling..."

Lucy quickly shook her head. "Elizabeth, I don't know if training me in the Game is really important right now."

"It is important, Lucy," the Briton said. "Even in light of..." She paused, trying to figure out how to explain this.

"In light of what?" Lucy asked, frowning.

Maximus cleared his throat before speaking. "There has been some...evidence recently discovered that indicates that the Game...may have been a fraud."

Lucy stared at him. "Excuse me?"

Elizabeth looked at Maximus and nodded. "You got the videotape too, then?"

"I did," the Roman told her. "I believe it."

"So do I," Elizabeth said. "As much as I hated to, it makes a lot of sense. And that scroll explains things as well."

"Excuse me?" Lucy spoke up. "Can you explain that a little further?"

As the two did, they were unaware of the eyes watching them from a hut on a neighboring tree, secretly taking in the conversation.

<What do ye know? They really do spread it about.>

<It's like I told you when we thought it up, Liam. They'll believe it. They'll believe it because they *want* to believe it.>

*****

Lucy stared at the two older Immortals, taking in what she had just heard. "My god," she whispered. She closed her eyes and rubbed at her face. "Are you telling me that this...Game isn't even real? That there's no point to it all?"

"Yes, we're not that happy with it ourselves," Elizabeth sighed. "Finding out that all those deaths are one big waste..." Her face darkened. "That one of the finest men who ever lived was killed for nothing in his own church..."

Seeing Elizabeth lost to her own memories, Maximus quickly stepped in. "Lucy, while it's true that there may be no Game, you still need to know how to fight. There may still be some Immortals who want to fight no matter what, whether it's because they don't want to believe in the Scroll or because they simply don't know any other way to live..."

"Or, God help us, because they like it," Elizabeth threw in, more composed. "The fanatics."

"I thought you'd have to be a fanatic to do this," Lucy snapped.

"It helps," Elizabeth admitted. She glanced over at Maximus. "Did you ever want the Prize?"

Maximus shook his head. "Not once. Not if it meant having to slaughter to get it."

"Me neither," the Englishwoman replied. "I often feared that the one who got it would be the wrong person. Because that's the only one who could win something like this."

<If I ever had any doubts over what we've done> Robin said to Liam. <That killed them.>

Maximus nodded. "Whatever the reasons, you have to learn, Lucy. You'll need that when we get back."

"If we get back," Lucy sighed.

"My reputation notwithstanding, I prefer being a bit more optimistic," Maximus said. "We will get back. Believe in that and it will be so." He nodded at Lucy and then began to walk off. Elizabeth and Lucy watched him go before facing one another.

"Interesting man," Elizabeth said. "I don't think I've felt so frightened by someone since I met the young Brando."

Lucy was silent for a long moment, looking down at her feet before finding the words she wanted to say. "Um...I didn't get the chance to tell you but...that was good work you did out there. Helping that girl, I mean. It was...well, it was impressive given the little we had to work with."

Elizabeth gave her a gentle smile. "I suppose that's one reason I'm such a good surgeon. I was performing operations before anastethic, blood packs and most surgical devices were even invented. I've done field surgery before. This was no different." She paused and thought about it. "Well, aside from seeing a liver that was bright green..."

Lucy bit her lip as she gathered herself up. "Elizabeth. I'm sorry for what I said before. About you being a killer and that you might actually like having to do it. You're a good doctor, Elizabeth. You can't be a good doctor unless you care about other people's lives."

"I think Romano may be an exception to that rule," Elizabeth joked. She sobered before speaking again. "Mortals die, Lucy. That's something you're going to have to learn very quickly. In the end, they all die while we keep going. But that doesn't mean their lives are meaningless, far from it. If we can help keep those lives going as long as possible...It will make what time they have all the more meaningful."

"Wow," Lucy said, thrown by the deep meaning in Elizabeth's words. "I didn't think of it like that."

Elizabeth moved forward and put a reassuring arm on Lucy's shoulder. "It's not easy becoming Immortal, Lucy," she said. "I've killed people. Even though they didn't have my best interests in mind at the time, it was still difficult and I've regretted each one. But it's something we've done, something we're trained to do. It's not pretty and it gets uglier as time goes by." She shrugged. "But no one ever said life had no drawbacks."

Lucy raised an eyebrow. "You call having to take someone's head a drawback?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Elizabeth answered.

"Talk about high standards," Lucy muttered. She paused and then looked up at Elizabeth. "Say, wait..." she muttered as a thought struck her. "Don't you have any money with being alive so long?"

"Oh, yes," Elizabeth answered. "I have a couple of million in a Swiss bank account. Many of the older Immortals do."

Lucy's eyes bulged. "You're a millionaire?" she shrieked. "Why the hell are you working for lousy pay at the ER?"

Elizabeth fixed her with a warm gaze. "Because no amount of money in the world can equal the joy there is in saving a life." She shrugged. "Call it atonement, I suppose. My small attempt to make up for the lives I've taken or I've seen pass by me. You'll understand that in time."

"I will?" Lucy asked, unsure.

"Lucy, why did you become a doctor?"

"To help people."

"Then I need not go any further."

Lucy paused to absorb that. "I'm never getting used to this..."

"I know," Elizabeth answered. "And this entire situation doesn't help at all, either." She gave Lucy a strong squeeze. "But I know you can get through this, Lucy. And, as hard as it may sound, after a few decades, you can be a doctor again."

Lucy brightened. "Wow, that does sound good. I can study, see what new stuff comes around and work it in."

"That's right," Elizabeth said. She frowned. "Of course, you'd have to do residency all over again."

"Oh, God, anything but that..."

*****

As he paced into the hut, Maximus looked over at Bernard. The priest was sitting in a makeshift chair, his hands drawn together as he appeared to be whispering under his breath. "Are you sure anyone can hear you?"

Tarring looked up at him. "He always can."

Maximus sighed and began to walk away again. "Bernard, I really could do without your philosophy right now."

"It's not philosophy, Maximus, it's faith," the priest answered. "You always need that, no matter what the situation."

"I don't think even I've ever had a situation like this, Bernard," Maximus sighed. "I'm usually quick to plan things out but this...I honestly don't know what kind of plan to create here, Bernard. And that's not something I like."

Tarring studied him carefully, knowing there was more that Maximus wasn't telling him. "Is that all, Maximus?"

Maximus was quiet and his fingers twitched toward where the hilt of his sword would be. "The way I tore into those Lizardon..." he began.

"They attacked us, Maximus," Tarring pointed out. "They forced the fight."

"Oh, I have no problems with that," the Immortal told him. "It's just that...that was a side to myself I didn't want to let loose again, Bernard. A side I thought I had buried."

Tarring sighed. "Max, we've been friends for a long time, before you trusted me with your secret. I've gotten to know you and I know one thing about your nature. As much as you might say otherwise, you were made to be a soldier, a fighter, a warrior." Tarring shrugged. "Just try to see it as part of God's plan, Maximus."

The Immortal snorted. "Don't talk to me about God's plan, Bernard. I saw God's plan when he took my wife and son away from me."

"An act which triggered a chain of events that led to you bringing justice to Rome," Tarring pointed out. "It all fits, Maximus, whether you want it to or not."

Maximus was silent for a long moment before he continued to march through and out the other end of the hut. Tarring watched him go and sadly shook his head. "Now that's a man who could use all the help you can give him, Lord," he whispered. He frowned. "Of course, that goes for all of us here."

"Hey, padre." Tarring looked up to see Robin and Liam in the doorway. "Your wouldn't happen to know where Marybeth is, do you?" Robin asked.

"I believe she headed down to the ground," Tarring said. "Apparently, she wants to see just how different the stars are here."

"Well, what do ye know," Liam remarked. "For her, having stars in her eyes is really a sign that she's mentally alert."

Robin looked at him strangely. "That was a bit weak."

"I'm saving me best for when things get nasty. A few clever quips always keep a battle at a brisk pace."

Robin thought about it and then nodded in agreement as he and Liam walked away. Tarring stared after them for a minute before raising his head upward. "Lord," he softly said. "I know you have a divine plan in mind for all things. Forgive me for asking...but just what part do those two play in it?"

*****

Maximus exited the hut and paused at the figure sitting on the edge of the wooden walkway, his legs dangling over the side as he stared at no point in particular. "I hope you're not planning on jumping."

"It had occurred to me," Mel said. "Although Marybeth could probably tell me that it wouldn't be the best plan."

"The girl is wise beyond her years," Maximus observed as he stood by the young man. A long silence came between them before Mel spoke.

"I never really thought about it," he said. "All of this, I mean. I knew what was going on, that Fahn had killed my parents and taken over, become a dictator but...but I never really gave it much thought. I know it must sound bad, that I didn't care about what happened to my own world but...I just didn't want to face up to it, I guess."

"Face up to what?" Maximus asked, although he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

Mel turned to face him. "There I am," he said in a quiet voice. "A teenager who's lived as normal a life as humanly possible, with great parents, good friends and everything I could ask for. Then, I find out I'm the prince of a planet no one's ever heard of and it's up to me to try and save it." He fell silent again and Maximus simply waited for him to go on.

"It's strange," Mel finally said, staring off into the sky. "I know the names of my ancestors dating back centuries. I know each prayer for each of the Holy Days and how to honor the Great One. I know the events from the founding of Varran to the Mynera War. But it's like fiction, like a story. I don't really *feel* it." He looked up at Maximus. "How am I supposed to fight for a planet I don't even feel for?"

Maximus carefully stepped up, staring up at the sky himself before answering. "You have to find something here worth fighting for. Something that you believe in. Something that can help you reach your destiny."

"I don't want this destiny," Mel barked as he rose to his feet. He paced for a bit before facing Maximus. "Listen..." He stopped and frowned. "Um, what do I call you? General? Mr. Meridas?"

"Maximus is fine," the Immortal told him. He studied Mel for a moment before letting out a light smile. "It's ironic in a way. You want nothing to do with ruling a world. I wanted the same when Marcus Auerilus offered it to me. Only I found myself pushed into fighting for Rome's future all the same."

"You were a ruler?"

"In a way, I ruled Rome through the army," Maximus said. "Truth to tell, I was never happy with being seen as such a symbol. The Emperor wanted me to become his successor, to rule until power could be given back to the people. I didn't want it." He looked at Mel and raised an eyebrow. "Sound familiar?"

"Yeah," Mel admitted. "But you saw what rule could do to a man."

"I did," Maximus confirmed. "One man cannot hold that much power. Commodus was corrupt already. Taking on the ultimate power of the throne drove him over the edge and stop him, I needed to do what the Emperor would have wanted me to do."

Mel was quiet for a moment. "If he hadn't been killed...If the offer was still there...Would you have taken it?"

"Perhaps," Maximus answered after a pause. He shrugged. "To tell the truth, though, I was always happy simply being a farmer." He saw the look Mel was giving him. "What?"

"I'm sorry," Mel said with a light laugh. "I'm having difficulty picturing you as a farmer."

Maximus snorted. "Dirt washes off much easier than blood, my young friend." He paused and looked him over. "I can't tell you what to do, Mel. That's your decision to make. I will give you some advice. When we defeat Fahn-"

"If we defeat him."

"When we defeat him...I would advise you to create an aid for yourself. Or at least for whoever decides to take over. A man once told me something that I've found to be quite true. There's no sense overthrowing one dictator if you're just going to replace him with another."

Mel raised an eyebrow. "I don't even want the job and you're telling me I'm going to be a tyrant?"

"You wouldn't plan on being one of course," Maximus told him. "But power can effect even the best of men. I've seen it happen enough times in my lifetime. Make sure, when you do leave power for one reason or another, that no one man can hold absolute power. You need to set up a system to pass that power out, prevent any one man from taking control. Set up a council, a congress or something like that, bring checks and balances-----"

"Checks and balances," Mel snorted. "Corday would just hate to hear that."

"Not necessarily," Maximus said. "The British set up Parliament to prevent the tyranny of kings and the Revolutionaries used that as the basis for Congress."

"I'm not trying to create a government," Mel protested. He paused and raised his eyebrows. "Of course, it is tempting to try and fix the Constitution..."

"I'd recommend against that," Maximus said. "If you create one, of course."

Mel frowned. "Why? I can keep it from being so loose and vague on the laws, make it stronger."

"It's because it's so loose and free that it's so strong," Maximus argued. "I knew a few of the founding father, Mel and I can tell you something. Yes, they were influential slave-owners who didn't know much about politics. Maybe they didn't possess what some would term greatness. But they did know the one thing all great men need to know, Mel: That they didn't know everything and couldn't predict exactly what the future would hold. That's why they set up their laws so they could be altered as the country progressed. If they hadn't...slavery might well still be around. They made room for change. Rome didn't. We remained stagnant and fell. America has endured and grown. Draw your own conclusions."

Mel looked at him for a long moment. "You missed your calling," he stated. "Instead of the army, you would have made a hell of a philosopher."

Maximus let out a small smile. "It's seeing the worst in humanity that allows you to make such an excellent study of it."

"Maybe you should have gone into politics."

Maximus shook his head. "No. No, I preferred being a soldier. At least there, you can see your enemy clearly."

*****

For a woman who had such an affinity for the stars, it seemed odd that Marybeth would be on the ground, staring upward. She actually preferred it that way somewhat. It made her feel as grounded as a person could possibly get in a situation like this. She wiped at her glasses before settling them back on her nose. She leaned against a tree and stared upward, trying to make out the sky through the mass of foliage.

"How's it going, kiddo?" Marybeth looked over to see Robin and Liam walking up to her. She managed a small smile as she tried to appear cheery. "Hey, guys. I'm okay, I suppose."

"Aye, this can be a bit of a wild turn," Liam said as he and Robin stood by the teenager. "Are ye sure ye're okay?"

Marybeth sighed. "It...hasn't totally sunk in, I guess," she said. "I've spent years believing in alien life but now that I've seen it..." She shook her head. "And that's on top of everything else you two have been throwing at me. What am I supposed to believe in next, the Loch Ness Monster?"

"Actually, Nessoi's a great guy once you get to know him," Robin said.

"For a Scot, that is," Liam put in.

Marybeth closed her eyes and rubbed at her head. "Note to self," she muttered under her breath. "There is no such thing as a rhetorical question with these two."

Robin chuckled as he patted Marybeth on the arm. "Come on, kid. You're a smart woman, you can get used to things pretty fast. And you can handle them."

"Not like the others can," Marybeth pouted as she kicked at a loose rock. "You know, it really sucks being the kid of the group."

"Ah, come on, lass, don't run yerself down because of that," Liam said. "Ye've got as much as any of the others."

"Oh, come on!" Marybeth protested, holding out her arms. "Look at me! I'm just a dowdy little computer geek!"

"I happen to know a woman who was a dowdy little computer geek," Robin told her. "Now, she's an ass-kicking Amazon witch dating a werewolf."

Marybeth looked at him before shaking her head and throwing up her hands. "I can't talk to you two, I just can't," she muttered as she turned away. A series of raised voices caught her attention and she looked up to see the makeshift elevator lowering itself down to the ground. Dullrena burst out of it, with two of her guards by her side. "Where are they?" she demanded.

"Coming from the east," one man replied. "Our sentries are with them. The Granton are being surprisingly cooperative."

"I don't care if they are," Dullrena hissed. She stopped as she looked over at Robin and Liam. Her eyes narrowed at the duo. "Just how many others did you say were with you when you arrived here?"

"Why?" Robin warily asked.

Before a reply could be given, a loud voice sounded out. "Now THIS is a dress code I could get behind!"

"SHUT UP, SHIRLEY!" Three more voices called out.

"Oh, God," Marybeth groaned. She glanced over at the large group coming through the clearing. Even after all she'd seen, Marybeth started at seeing the Granton, who were throwing looks of suspicion and light malice at the Peruitusans, who answered with matching looks. In the middle of the group was Nicky, Katie, Cal and Shirley, who was studying the warriors with barely disguised lust.

Dullrena marched forward, her face showing she wasn't at all pleased by this development. "Who are you?" she demanded. "From the beginning."

"The beginning?" Shirley piped up. "Well, I was born on a cold rainy night in April to then loving parents. The first thing I remember seeing upon opening my eyes------"

"Hold," Dullrena cut her off. She peered at Shirley closely. "Are you a storyteller?"

"Oh, I could tell you such stories-----"

"NO!" Nicky, Katie and Cal yelled. Dullrena glanced at them, then back to Shirley, who was giving her a very appraising look. "Nice," the woman said with a grin. "Very nice. I can see why you're in charge, who wouldn't want a lady who makes Xena look bad bossing them arouuulllllp!" The last outburst was due to Dullrena leaping forward, wrapping a hand around Shirley's throat and lifting her off her feet.

Dullrena pulled Shirley in, one hand clenched around her throat, the other at the side of Shirley's head, letting the woman know that only a swift twist would be necessary to break her neck. Her eyes lit with anger, Dullrena hissed into Shirley's face. "I am not Xena, you miserable spawn of a ferkike! I am not her, I never liked her and you will never address me as her ever again, do you understand me?!"

"Man, this is one cold-hearted, too-serious, fun-needing bitch!" Cal remarked. "What is *her* problem?"

"She used to date Robin," Marybeth informed him.

"That explains so much," Katie muttered.

Shirley was silent for a long moment, digesting all that Dullrena had just said. "You know..." she finally choked out. "I'm feeling very aroused right now."

Disgusted, Dullrena let Shirley drop to her the ground. She turned toward the others and crossed her arms. "I am assuming you will be wanting protection and sanctuary."

"We will," Bekor spoke up.

Dullrena fixed him with a glare. "I will allow you to stay on our lands. But you will be confined to the ground and no further. If you stray...you will die."

"Gee, the Granton, the Peurtitians, Dullrena, a bunch of humans, us and Fahn's searching for us all," Liam muttered. "Gee, what could possibly go wrong?"

"Liam..."

"I'm being sarcastic, Rob, it won't count."

*****

Part ten: In which a smackdown is held.

Summers Residence
Sunnydale, CA
May 25th, 1999 - 2002 Hours PST

Steven St. Wolf was focused completely on Zev Mundac. His eyes were fixed on the other man, his body tensed in anticipation of his move, his every sense on high alert and prepared for anything Zev might dish out.

So Steve had a hard time later on figuring out how, in the space of an eye blink, Zev was before him, smashing a palm into his chest.

Steve gasped as he fell back. As he did, Zev grabbed one of his legs. He placed a palm just above the knee while his other hand gripped Steve's foot. A shove with each hand and a loud cracking sound went out as Steve's knee shattered.

Zev was already moving, spinning around and lashing out with a foot. It connected with Buffy's jaw, a sound like a cork popping going out as the Slayer fell back, landing hard on the floor.

Even as he moved, Zev's mind was a whirl. *Leader's taken out, along with his second. Assess the next major threat.* His eyes fixed on Amy, Jenny and Willow. *Psykonetic abilities? Cybernetic aids? No matter, they're too long-range to be allowed to attack much longer.* He shifted himself forward, moving right toward the witches with incredible speed. He was up against superior numbers in a closed environment, never a good combination. However, Zev did have two things going for him. First, he was an expert in fighting styles these Terrans had never even heard of. And second...well, he was him.

Jenny was the first to react to his attack, throwing up her hands in an attempt to stave off the kick Zev lashed out at her. She winced in pain at the force of his foot smacking into her hands but before she could try and grab it, he was already pulling it away. Amy and Willow immediately tried to attack him from opposite sides but Zev's speed was greater than they had imagined. He grabbed each by the forearm, yanking them in close. Before Willow or Amy knew what was happening, Zev's hands went to just underneath their necks, his fingers splayed outward, middle and index placed together. He pressed down, touching the right nerve centers exactly. Both Willow and Amy started, their eyes going wide, then closing as they slumped unconscious to the ground.

"Whoa," Xander said. "Insert your own Vulcan neck pinch joke here."

Seeing her two fellow witches go down infuriated Jenny and she lunged forward, throwing a fist at Zev. He caught it and yanked her in, launching a kick that smashed into her midsection. Jenny gasped as she felt the wind being knocked out of her. Zev snapped his leg up, striking Jenny in the chin and sending her slumping against a wall.

A loud growl filled Zev's ears and he turned in time to see Giles coming at him. The Ripper was in full control as he managed to hit Zev in the jaw with a fist, knocking him back. *Damn, the man's stronger than he looks.* Zev thought to himself. Giles moved in and once more punched at Zev. This time, the alien caught the fist in one hand while his other lashed out with a trio of blows to Giles' midsection. *Of course, anger often leads to sloppiness.* He spun around, holding Giles' arm over his shoulder while, in a single move, lashing an elbow into Giles' chest and a backhand to his face, sending him down. Seeing an opportunity, Larry and Randi rushed in from either side. Zev ducked under Larry's arm and lashed an elbow into the football player's side. The beefy young man winced but didn't go down, attempting an elbow of his own at Zev. The alien caught it, his hand placed underneath Larry's elbow as he pushed upward, throwing him off-balance. At the same time, Zev lashed out a leg to knock back at Randi's arm. With amazing dexterity, his leg wrapped around her arm, foot locking behind Randi's elbow. Yanking won both ends of his body Zev threw her over and sent her smashing into Larry, knocking them both down.

Giles immediately moved back in, leaping over the two teens and launching a kick at Zev. He dodged it and spun about, letting his palm smack into Giles' chest, following it up with a quick jab to his chin and a chop to his neck. Giles gasped as he felt his legs suddenly give way as if the nerves had been severed.

Zev turned away to see who was next and saw Xander and Cordelia move up. "Oh, please," he muttered. "The best you two could possibly hope for is to merit my full attention."

"Nice," Cordelia sniffed. "I can't believe Joyce actually thought you were a good guy."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Zev remarked. He looked over the two and smirked. "Then again, since the two of you look like fools, you'd be an exception."

"Watch it pal," Cordelia barked. "We're already in a foul mood. We lost our place at the Motor Lodge."

Zev sniffed. "That establishment? Please. I couldn't believe how much the manager charged me in order to get this room someone actually had reserved."

Xander and Cordelia looked at each other, then at Zev, their faces filled with anger. "Oh, you're going down for that, buddy," Cordelia snarled as she threw a kick at Zev's face. He dropped backward to avoid it but it set him up for Xander's kick to hit him in the midsection, followed by a quick blow to his leg. Zev grunted as he fell to one knee, just able to block the kicks the two threw at him. He fell, his back on the floor and spun his legs out, rather enjoying the feeling as his feet smacked into Xander and Cordelia's legs, causing them to both yelp in pain.

Balancing back on his hands, Zev leaped back up to his feet and was just in time to catch the punch Randi threw at him. Randi tried to press the advantage with another punch but Zev caught it, cris-crossing his hands, the flat of the palms on either side or Randi's arm. A hard press with each palm and Zev was rewarded with a snapping sound as Randi's arm broke in at least three places. As she yelled in pain, Zev smashed a kick into her face, knocking her down.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zev saw Larry charging at him. *The large ones always charge. Nice to see there are universal constants.* He reached out to grab Larry by the front of his shirt and twisted his body as he pulled, using Larry's own momentum to send the football player flying to the ground. Zev dropped into a roll, coming up to smash an elbow into Larry's sternum, then smashed a fist into his face.

A loud yell filled his ears and Zev twisted his body to avoid Cordelia's foot smashing into the floor where his head had been. He flipped himself up, his feet lashing out, both smashing into Cordelia's midsection, sending her back with a gasp. Zev was turning as Xander threw a kick at his head but he ended up rolling with the blow and using the momentum to throw a wicked backhand at Xander's head. The young man also rolled with the blow and threw a spin kick at Zev. The alien caught his foot, one hand gripping Xander hard by the ankle. Without even looking, he held out an arm to catch Cordelia's leg as she kicked at him. As the two felt themselves pulled off-balance, Zev couldn't help but smile. "With you two, this should hardly even hurt," he stated as he pulled them both in toward each other. In one swift move, he let go of their legs and grabbed them by their shoulders, smashing their heads together.

As the two crumbled to the floor, Zev turned to meet his next two challenges. Faith and Kendra were moving in, both in fighting mode. Faith had a smirk on her face as she cracked her knuckles. "Okay, buddy boy," she announced. "Let's see how you handle the Slayer tag team."

"Both at once," Zev nodded. "Sounds good to me."

"Ooh, feisty," Faith cooed. "My kind of guy."

"Don't honor yourself," Zev said as he folded his hands before, fingers pointing inward, an apparent fighting pose. "You two can't hope to keep up with me."

Kendra raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean in fighting or...?"

Zev sniffed. "You *really* couldn't handle me there."

"Tell ya what," Faith said. "When we beat you, we can test the theory ourselves!"

"FAITH!"

"Aw, come on, Kend," Faith replied, turning toward the dark-skinned Slayer. "You know that-----"

The girl was good, Zev had to give her that. In the blink of an eye, she'd spun away from Kendra and launched a kick at his face. Zev blocked it and then quickly moved his hands to block the punch Kendra was attempting to throw. He was soon backing up into the foyer, blocking the punches and kicks each woman was throwing at him. He felt, more than saw, someone coming near and launched his fist out to smack into Buffy's face, sending the third Slayer back down to the floor. *I do hope this planet has decent cosmetic surgeons* he thought as he ducked a blow sent by Kendra. He shoved forward, his shoulder hitting her in the chest and lifting her up. As he did, he wrapped his arms around her waist, holding in tight as he ran Kendra's back into the nearest wall. He let go of one hand to hit the palm into the side of her head, stunning the Jamaican.

Zev dropped Kendra and turned around to where Faith stood. The Boston-bred Slayer hauled back with one leg and thrust it forward and up, the boot slamming into Zev's crotch so hard it actually lifted him off his feet. Faith smirked...

And then stopped, her face dizzolving into shock as Zev, without so much as a wince, looked down at himself, then back up at her. He seemed more puzzled than anything else as he asked her, "Was that supposed to accomplish something?"

The fact that Zev wasn't showing any reaction whatsoever to what should have been a devastating blow, more than anything, sunk into Faith the utter...alien nature of the man. It threw her enough for Zev to rush forward and nail her in the face with two punches and then a kick to send her to the ground.

"Ahem." Zev turned around to see the one person he had yet to fight. Shaw had her arms behind the back, seeming to fiddle with something in her hands. "Very good," she stated. "Very good indeed."

"Nice to meet someone who appreciates excellence," Zev remarked. He took in Shaw, his eyes zeroing in on her body structure. "You're not like them, are you?"

"No," Shaw said, hiding her surprise at his observation. "But I care for them and fight with them."

"A shame," Zev remarked, his fists held up. "I suppose that means you'll have to pay the price with the rest of them."

"I doubt I shall be the one paying," Shaw said as she pulled her hands around. In each flashed a set of large metallic claws which glinted in the light. Zev took them in and raised an eyebrow in surprise and appreciation. "You have good taste."

"I hope you will appreciate that when I slam them down your throat."

"Really?" Zev seemed surprised. "You strike me as a woman more likely to aim for the other orifice."

"I like to do the unexpected," Shaw smiled as she waved her claws.

Zev appraised them carefully. "Yujita," he remarked. "You have met one?"

"I have," Shaw responded. "I even fought one to a standstill."

"Really," Zev stated. "I killed eight of them bare-handed." Shaw started in surprise and Zev immediately moved in, throwing a blow toward her chest. Shaw rolled with it, spinning about and slashing out with her claws. Zev managed to get out of the way of the claws, which slashed at his shirt, leaving a pair of large tears. Shaw continued to turn, lashing at Zev's midsection with a kick that knocked him back.

Shaw moved in, gripping at Zev's arms, her claws working toward his face. "I'm disappointed," she grunted as she pushed the blades toward Zev. "I had hoped this would be more of a challenge."

A sudden pain hit one arm and Shaw leaped back, startled by the sudden sensation. She looked at her left arm and saw a tear in it with blood staining the material. It wasn't a deep cut but the fact it came from nowhere confused Shaw. She looked to Zev...and caught her breath.

Extending from the outside forearm of Zev's right arm were a set of spikes, each about four inches long and appearing quite sharp. There were four in all, lining down from just under his wrist, down the outside of the arm, the fourth extending from his skin right above the elbow. As Shaw watched, four more spikes erupted from the inside of his arm. Zev held out his left arm and eight spikes popped out from it. He cris-crossed his arms before him, the spikes flashing a bit under the lights. "What's that saying you have on this planet?" he dryly remarked. "Something about being careful what you wish for?"

He uncrossed his arms and moved in, his arms flashing about as he attacked Shaw. She quickly attempted to bring her arms up to defend herself, barely able to keep up with Zev's speed. Good as Shaw was, four claws against sixteen wasn't much of a contest. Zev worked the outside of his forearms so his spikes interlaced with Shaw's claws. He brought his arms outward, spreading hers apart and lashed out with a kick so powerful, it sent Shaw flying back with her claws still hooked onto Zev's spikes.

Without pausing, Zev turned and, with a quick twist of each arm, sent the Yujata claws flying back into the living room where Giles and Larry barely ducked the oncoming projectiles. They embedded themselves into the wall above Jenny, who was kneeling on the ground trying to revive Willow and Amy. Zev dashed forward, slicing outward with his hands, the two men dodging the spikes while trying to attack Zev. The alien kicked Larry in the chest, then swung out an arm at Giles. The Briton fell back, which left him exposed to a kick to the lower abdomen that knocked the wind out of him.

Zev's ears tricked up as he heard the sound of metal whistling through air. He ducked and turned and thus avoided the slash of Steve's sword flying above him. Zev rose in time to see Buffy's sword coming at him and held up his arm. He winced at the feeling as the blade met his spikes but still managed to block that blow, as well as the one Steve was attempting.

Zev didn't bother wasting time trying to figure out how Steve and Buffy could both be back to fighting shape when he had broken the former's kneecap and shattered the latter's jaw. Instead, he backed up into the foyer once more, his arms moving swiftly to block the attempted blows by the two Immortals. The sound of metal hitting whatever Zev's spikes were made out of echoed throughout the house as the alien found himself being forced back.

Randi decided to get back into things and rushed forward, her own sword flashing outward. The others stood by and watched in amazement at the sight of Zev, spikes on his arms, blocking the lunges and slashes by the three Immortals. They could at least take satisfaction in how Zev seemed to wince as sparks flew out from the clashes.

Steve swung his blade in a downward arc, Zev barely able to bring his claws up in time to block it. He yelled with pain as two of his spikes broke apart under the swing. He was still able to block a swing from Buffy, but lost another spike in the process. "All right, he's hurting!" Buffy grinned. "Let's see him ignore it while-----"

Zev suddenly leaped up and hit Buffy with a kick to the face. "I don't ignore pain," he hissed. "I use it for motivation."

He ducked under a swing from Steve and came up with a savage kick to Randi's stomach, knocking her down. "Shit!" she gasped. "Twelve of us, one of him, and he's kicking our asses!"

"It's called skill, my dear," Zev grunted as he made his way to the stairs. "Should you reach such an age, gain some." He leapt backward, his feet kicking back at Steve and Buffy, driving them back a bit as he flipped up the stairs. Despite his bravado, Zev knew the odds were against him and that a tactical withdrawal probably wouldn't be such a bad idea right now. He moved quickly and was somewhat surprised that none of the other fighters were following him. *Odd. Either they're more intimidated than I thought or---*

He froze. *Or the fact that girl said there were twelve of them indicates there's someone up here waiting for me.* He turned and sure enough, a figure stepped out from the upstairs bathroom and faced him.

Zev did something most people didn't do when they first saw Oz: He treated the green-haired guitarist as a threat. With all he had seen and done in his long lifetime, if there was one thing Zev knew on sight, it was a predator. And this young man was definitely one.

He was staring at Zev with a hard expression, a bit of fire in his eyes that made Zev feel just a tad uncomfortable. "If you don't stop," Oz said in a flat tone. "I'll hurt you."

Zev narrowed his eyes, still trying to figure out just what it was about this young man that set off the alarms in his head. "Really? Any personal reason or just the overwhelming lust for violence that is so prevalent in your species?"

Oz took a single step forward as he glared at Zev. "My girlfriend was one of the girls you knocked out down there," he said. "I was hoping I'd get a shot at you alone."

Zev backed up, bringing up his arms, his spikes on full display. He had retracted the three that had been broken, which still left him with enough to "Then by all means, boy. Take your best shot." He let out a small smirk. "You only get one."

Oz didn't move, simply staring at Zev and the alien got that uneasy feeling again. He gave the boy another close look, trying to see just what threat he posed...and saw Oz's features begin to shift.

*What in the Nine Pillars-----* Zev's eyes widened as fur sprouted around Oz's body, his face taking on the aspects of an animal and his body began to change. *Oh, frozik.*

Oz's mouth retracted to show his fangs and he let out a low growl at Zev, who was startled at the sudden transformation of the man. With a speed that even Zev wasn't prepared for, Oz lunged forward and hurled himself at the man. Zev automatically backed up, trying to bring his spikes to bear but wasn't fast enough. Oz hit him head-on right in the mid-section, lifting Zev off his feet and sending him crashing through the wood banister. Zev involuntarily yelped as he fell off the landing, sailing down into the foyer and smashing right through the table set along the stair wall.

"Right into the Spanish announcer's table!" Xander announced as the others started to move up.

"Shut up, Xander!" Most everyone replied.

"Oh, like I was the only one thinking that!" Xander defended himself.

"Actually, I was thinking of the Dudley Boyz," Shaw remarked.

Rubbing at her neck, Amy looked toward Willow as Jenny helped the two witches along. "Sometimes she's so Earth woman, it scares me." Willow nodded in agreement, then gasped and held at her neck in pain.

Zev groaned as he tried to rise up. A shadow fell on him and he tensed as he saw Oz leap down from the stairs. The werewolf landed just to the side of Zev, his teeth near the alien's throat, his growl echoing through Zev's ears.

Some more shapes came into focus and Zev was suddenly aware of the trio of swords held above him, the tips inches from his neck. Giles and Jenny approached him from either side, Giles stepping a foot on his left arm, Jenny on his right, holding them down. Zev took a long look around at the group of humans surrounding him then calmly relaxed. While he hated to even give the appearance of giving up, he had to be a realist. His spikes retracted back into his arms, the tears in his shirt showing where they had been.

"All right, pal," Buffy said, rubbing at her jaw. "We've got you."

Zev snorted. "And it only took a dozen of you! Well, color me impressed!"

Faith smirked. "Well, B, K and me were holding back."

Zev smiled. "I'm certain you were." He gasped as Faith lay a kick to his side (seeing as how kicking his crotch didn't seem to do much for some reason).

The Boston-bred Slayer moved down and hissed at Zev. "You messed with our Mom, asshole. WE wanted to chop you into fish bait."

Zev studied her for a long moment. "You know, under different circumstances," he calmly said. "I might get to like you."

"I'll hold my pleasure back," Faith sniffed.

"Well, I'll give him this," Steve said. "He's a good fighter."

"Hey, he oughta be with all that arm-ament."

"Xander!" Cordelia snapped as she smacked him on the head.

"If those two had defeated me, I would have had to commit suicide," Zev muttered. His fells on a new arrival and narrowed in anger. "So, what now, dear sister?"

Roz carefully bent down, her face blank as she gazed at her brother. "Now, we hold you while I gather up the energy I need," she stated. "In just a few hours, dear brother, I'll never have to see your face again."

"Don't be too sure," Zev hissed at her. He tried to rise up but several feet planted on his body prevented that attempt. He lay back, sighing as Steve looked at the others. "Willow, Jenny, Amy, see if you can figure a mystic barrier for him." He sighed. "Preferably one that won't fall apart easily."

"I said I was sorry," Roz sighed. "It won't happen again, I promise."

A loud coughing filled the room and everyone looked up to see Joyce standing before them. Her arms were crossed before her, her eyes hard as she looked around the smashed table, indented wall, broken stairway and then to the group.

"Oh, shit," Faith whispered. "We're in for it now."

Zev looked up at her in amazement. "Excuse me, you have no worries whatsoever about taking me on but the idea of handling her complaints about some damage done to Joyce's house terrifies you? How the hell can you be so much more intimidated by her than by me?!"

"She's a mother."

"Oh." Zev frowned. "Well, you do have a point there..."

*****

Part eleven: In which sanctuary is found, both in location and in emotion.

This chapter is rated NC-17 for sexual content.

Varran

The throne room reflected the rest of the palace: Dark, in color and atmosphere, with weapons and insignias covering the wall that showcased the brutal nature of its emperor.

Fahn himself sat on the throne at the back of the room, the black seat sitting atop a large platform that forced people to look up at him, just the way he preferred it. He sat cross-legged, his gloves hands pursed together as he appeared to be rather nonchalant. His eyes, however, blazed with anger. "You let them go," he said in a low tone. "You let them go."

Standing before him was the unfortunate soul who had the bad luck to have been in charge of the pursuit of Eril, Sean and Kim. His red armor showed a bit of water on it, the result of his boat being dunked in the riverway during the chase. He swallowed and tried to collect himself as he spoke. "Sire, we did our best to give chase but Koeing eluded us. He knows our defenses better than anyone, sire, it should not be surprising that he managed to escape our grasp." He quickly bowed his head.

"I can't believe they could even get away," Fahn remarked. He turned toward Jorbell, who stood nearby, his expression blank. "How could they do this? How could they be able to even walk after what you did? What kind of a torturer are you?! Don't you have any pride in your work?"

Jorbell remained silent so Fahn turned back to the guard. "Okay, is there anything whatsoever you can do to find out..." He paused and studied the guard. "What are you doing?"

The guard had been intently gazing at the floor but swiftly glanced up at Fahn. "Um...making sure I'm not standing on a panel with hinges."

Fahn leaned back, smiling as he lay his hands on the armrests of the throne. "Ah. You've heard about the trapdoor I occasionally use to punish the ones who fail me, eh?"

"Um, yes," the guard admitted.

"Well, don't worry, that got too repetitive. I don't do that anymore."

"Really?" The guard visibly brightened.

"Really," Fahn said as he pressed down on a button. The panel underneath the guard blasted upward, sending him flying in the air. His startled yell was cut off as his body was impaled on a set of spikes hanging from the ceiling.

"Nice work," Fahn stated, staring up at the bloody trophy. "My compliments to the engineering staff." He sat back on his throne and shook his head. "I just don't understand. Why in the Great One's name would Eril betray me like this?"

"If I may, sir," Maro spoke up. "Perhaps it had something to do with his sister."

Fahn stared at him in confusion. "How so?"

"Well, sir you violated and then murdered his sister, then called him to take away her body only a few days ago," Maro said. "I think he might have become rather agitated by that."

Fahn furrowed his brow. "That was his sister?"

Maro stared at the emperor. "You didn't even know the name of the woman you raped and murdered?"

"You can't possibly expect me to remember the name of every single woman I've raped and murdered."

Maro was silent and Jorbell quickly stepped in to talk. "My Lord, we still have an issue with the guard," he stated.

"You think they'd have a problem killing their former commander?" Fahn asked.

"No," Jorbell easily stated. "But he knows our defenses, he knows the way the Fadakur thinks. He trained them, after all. If he survived the escape, and I believe it's safer to assume he did, he could cause major damage with such information."

"Who's he going to tell?" Fahn sniffed. "The other tribes are no major threat, we've seen to that. The only way they could threaten us is if they work together and we've ensured that never happens. Besides, he's only one man with two humans. What possible threat could he pose to us?"

"If memory serves," Maro spoke up. "That was almost exactly the same thing people were saying about you over twenty years ago."

Something close to anger flashed in Fahn's eyes before fading. "But he's not me," he stated. "That means he's not a threat."

"Can you be sure?" Maro pressed.

Fahn narrowed his eyes. "Listen closely, Maro," he said, leaning forward. "I keep you around because you can handle things I don't. You recognize threats I can't. But I am the emperor and do not forget that."

Maro brought his head up. "Sire, I have no wish to become an instant target and be stuck with the meaningless duties you usually perform. I enjoy being the power behind the throne."

"Be careful, Maro," Fahn stated. "I'm well aware of the fact that being behind the throne gives you an excellent opening for the knife in the back." He sat back and crossed his arms behind his head. "All right, if it will make you feel any better, double the guard, 38 hours a day, eight days a week." He paused and bent his head to the side. "There's a song in that somewhere..."

He gave out a wave of his hand, indicating the audience was finished. Sharing a look, Jorbell and Maro turned and walked toward the exit.

"This is not the way I envisioned this," Maro sighed as he and Jorbell walked down the hallways of the palace. "Curbing his...activities is more difficult than I had thought it would be. I tell you, Jorbell, this sudden obsession to destroy Melroy is going to cause some trouble for us."

"He is just another ruler, Maro," Jorbell stated. "I've seen enough of those over the years to know that it's best to simply let them have their way and try to stay out of it. It's worked well for us so far."

"True," Maro muttered. He sighed and shook his head before looking back at Jorbell. "But those two officers...What he said about them."

"Well, it was inevitable, in a way," Jorbell shrugged. "After all these years, someone from Earth was bound to find their way to here." He rubbed at his chin and sighed. "Still, for it to happen here and now...it doesn't feel right somehow."

"We'd best keep an eye out then," Maro stated. "The last thing we need is to have them hook up with Melroy and cause trouble."

"True," Jorbell stated. "I have no wish to be caught in such a rebellion."

Maro sniffed. "It's not as if that will hurt you that much." He ran a hand across the thin layer of hair along his scalp and sighed. "I must tell you, Jorbell, that seeing you staying the same while I have succumbed to age is not a pleasant experience."

"I can see that." Jorbell let out a slight smile. "But think about it this way, Maro. You get to pack so much...pleasure in a shorter time than I do."

Maro paused to think about it. "Well, there is that."

The Raulian Falls

Niagra Falls it wasn't but it was still quite beautiful. The river flowed through a valley of green fields, with flowers plentiful on either side. It ended in a round pool with the waterfall pouring from a river about two hundred feet above.

Behind the waterfall, hidden from view by the raging streams, was a massive open cavern. It was surprisingly well lit, with torches adding to the strange natural light that the rocks were giving off. Inside the cavern was a large structure, roughly the size of a cathedral. It was surprisingly simple, without many ornate trimmings and in many ways resembled the type of abbeys that had littered the Middle Ages.

There was a flood of bubbles in the pool before the building, a flood that swiftly grew as the water began to part. In a blast of water, a pointed shape emerged from the water, cone first. It hung for a moment before smacking down, the craft balancing itself out and then moving forward toward the small dock just outside the temple. It settled near the dock and the shielding on the top of the craft retracted.

"You could have told us there was a top to this thing!" Sean yelled as he and Kim began to climb out of the craft. Eril was already out and tying the boat to the dock, then rising to face them.

"I was in something of a rush," the guard stated. "I did give ample warning we took to the falls."

"Interesting definition of the word 'ample,'" Kim sourly remarked as the two cops met Eril on the dock. She let herself gaze out at the large building and bent her head. "Just what is this place?"

"A temple of the Order of Neiteran," Eril said as he led them toward the building. "The major religious order of Varra. It is considered neutral ground, a safe haven. Not even Fahn would attack someone here. It should be the perfect place to rest and plan our next move."

"As in, plan with us?" Sean stated. "Because so far this has been the Eril Koening show with Sean Cavendish and Kim Wagner as your special guest stars. You haven't asked us for permission for jackshit so far."

"We don't even know why you're helping us," Kim angrily threw in. "Why the hell should we suddenly accept-----"

Eril turned on them and for the first time, a clear emotion flashed across his face: Anger. "I have had my doubts over what I was doing for a long time," he hissed. "I have done things I am not proud of, horrors that you cannot begin to imagine, simply to maintain my own survival. I have seen a task I took as an honor degenerate into a level just above a barbarian. But it wasn't until Fahn raped and murdered my sister, the sole remaining member of my family, that I realized that I had pledged my loyalty to an utter monster. I was not going to let you two become the latest victims to his barbarism, not when I could help it. I saved your lives, Sean. The least I think I am afforded, the very least, is just a tad of gratitude and respect for that." He turned and marched away, leaving a stunned Kim and Sean behind.

"That man," Kim softly said. "Has problems."

"He fits right in here," Sean couldn't help remarking as the two followed.

The main room in the interior of the temple was made notable by its complete lack of any furniture, just a large flat area, roughly the size of the interior of a small church. On the far end of the room was a raised platform with a long altar set atop it. Before it stood the only occupant of the temple the trio had seen so far. He was tall and seemed to have a good build, dressed in a large gray robe and hood.

Eril paused before the edge of the steps to look up at the man. "Monk Senior," he called out. "We need your aid."

There was a snorting sound from the man as his head turned slightly. "Why not?" he stated sardonically. "I know enough about your kind to know you'll just take whatever you want anyway."

"Monk Senior, we come requesting aid and sanctuary..." Eril's voice trailed off as he took in the figure. He blinked and bent his head to the side. "I know you," he said, narrowing his eyes at the profiled figure. "How do I know you?"

"All right," the figure said as he turned his head nearer to the side. "I give up, how do you know me?"

"That voice..." Eril softly said, his brow furrowing. "That face..." His eyes suddenly shot wide open and his jaw unhinged in shock. "No..." he whispered. "It can't be..." He took a step forward and when he spoke it was with almost reverence. "General Ujaki?"

The man started. It was a start both Kim and Sean recognized, the start of a man who had just had a major secret uncovered. It was followed by a forced laugh of false disbelief that they both knew well. "Really," the man said as he turned around. "Do I look like------"

He stopped, his voice trailing as he took in Eril. He reached up and pushed back his hood to reveal his face. He had the same odd red-tinged skin as Eril and features that were strong despite their age. His head was mostly bald, save for a quite short ponytail at the back that was showing some gray to it. He appeared to be in his sixties (at least, as far as Kim and Sean could tell) and carried every year of it. His dark eyes narrowed as he saw Eril for the first time. "Wait," he said, his voice carrying a rumbling even when softened. "Can it be?" His eyes widened and his face broke out in a wide smile. "It is!" he cried out. "IT IS!"

Laughing, he moved down the stairs and embraced the stunned Eril. "Eril, my old and faithful friend, it is you!"

"Ujaki..." Eril said, his face showing his shock. "I...I can't believe it! We all thought you were dead! Killed in the Myeran War!"

The elder man broke the embrace and stepped back, a smile still on his face. "In many ways, you could say the great general did die then," he stated. "I saw most of my soldiers, the men most loyal to the king, wiped out by the conflict. I was badly wounded, I barely got out alive and thought it best to recover in secret." His face fell. "It was while I was recovering that Fahn took power and since I had never been very popular in his eyes, I felt it better that he believe me dead."

Eril frowned. "You've been in hiding? That doesn't sound like the Ujaki I knew."

Ujaki sighed. "It was hiding at first, simply avoiding the killers he sent after me." He looked up at Eril, pride in his eyes. "But I've learned things, old friend. I've learned to open my heart to true peace and understanding, I've learned how to fight for peace, not war. It has been...a good feeling, I must admit." He shook his head and looked at Eril. "But what of you, old friend? Why are you here?"

"I've done what I should have done years ago," Eril told him, a trace of shame in his voice. "I've turned against him and I'm planning to continue that trend."

Ujaki nodded, then looked at Kim and Sean. "And them?"

Eril looked back at the duo. "Off-worlders. I helped them escape Jorbell's little interrogation room and I'm trying to lead them to some friends they have here."

"You are all more than welcome to stay," Ujaki said. He looked at the two officers and raised an eyebrow. "But the first thing I would recommend is a bath."

"Been there, done that," the two sourly remarked.

Sean had to admit, the bath had been pretty good. After all he'd been through in the last day, the hot water and cool soap felt surprisingly good on his skin. It was just what he needed to try and wash away the aches of the day. At least, the physical ones.

He stepped out of the bath house and into the main hallway of the residence area of the temple. There were about a dozen other monks scattered around the building, all engaged in various duties, all in the same garment as Ujaki. Sean was wearing a dark orange robe and slippers, his hair still wet as he padded down the hallway. He saw Eril leaning against a wall and approached him. "Where's Kim?" he asked.

The guard nodded at a nearby room. "In there. She just got out of her own bath."

Sean was silent before speaking. "How is she?"

"What does it matter to you?"

Sean stared at him in shock. "What do you mean, what does it matter?" he demanded. "She's my partner and my friend, I care about her. I need to know she's okay."

"Physically yes," Eril answered. "Emotionally...that's another question. She has been put through much pain today, Sean. I think some it might be about you."

Sean narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"

Eril sighed. "I mean that having a secret she had kept close to her heart thrust into your knowledge is weighing on her greatly. She may be concerned that you will feel differently about her now that you know the truth. That may hurt her." He gave Sean a steady gaze. "You might hurt her."

"Hurt her?" Sean exploded. "Me hurt her?! Never, that would never happen, I could never do that, I could never hurt her, I love her too much to------"

He stopped, his jaw hanging open and his eyes widening as he realized what he had just said. "I love her," he whispered. "My God, I love her."

Eril stepped forward and clasped a hand to Sean's shoulder. "Then go to her," he said softly. "Go to her and show her how much you love her, my friend. She needs to know that." He turned and walked away on his heel, leaving a stunned Sean behind.

Sean Cavendish had never been a believer in an epiphany. The idea that a person, in one single instant, could suddenly see the way their entire life truly was and how to change it had, to Sean, seemed ridiculous. However, he was quickly becoming a convert as he realized for the first time the full range of his emotions for his partner.

The years of friendship. The way they worked together so well, the way he loved seeing her laugh or smile. The fact she was always there to help him and him to help her. The fact that none of the women he had ever dated seemed to measure up. For the first time ever, Sean realized just what he had subconsciously been measuring them up against. He swallowed hard as the secret he'd long hidden from himself was brought to life. And realized what he had to do next.

Kim let out a long groan as she sat onto the small bed. Not surprisingly, the temple rooms were simple and sparse on luxuries. Each room contained a lone bed, table, makeshift closet and small altar. Kim wasn't caring too much on the decoration of the place. She was tired out, in more ways than one. She was dressed in another loose robe which was a bit small on her. Her long blonde mane was still wet from her bath, which she'd had to herself. She'd gotten the idea that women weren't exactly common visitors to the place.

A knock on the door got her attention and she rose to her feet, walking over and opening it. She sucked in her breath as she saw Sean standing on the other side, his face sober. "Hey," he said. "Can I...um...can I come in?"

Part of Kim wanted to slam the door in his face and never come back out. She bit her lip as she considered her options. This was the moment she'd been dreading, the reason she had never voiced her feelings before. She knew Sean would be careful and sympathetic, that was part of his nature. But Kim knew what was coming. That in the end, Sean would state that he liked her as a friend but that was it.

Kim realized that she'd been standing there for several minutes as Sean waited and finally stepped back. "Come on in," she sighed as she turned and walked to the middle of the small room. Sean followed, closing the door behind him and leaning on it, crossing his arms as he looked at his partner.

It was silent for a long minute before Sean spoke. "How long?"

"How long have we known each other?" Kim answered.

Sean stared at her, then shook his head, letting out a rueful chuckle. "Explains a lot," he said. "God, it explains a whole lot of things over the years." A thought struck him and he looked over at Kim. "Did you...pull strings to get assigned to be my partner?"

Kim looked down at her feet. "I, um, sort of got my dad to offer some free Cubs tickets to the duty sergeant. You know, the whole 'best friends, good partners' thing." She looked back up at Sean. "But I really hoped that..." She couldn't bring herself to say anything else and instead turned around, her arms crossed before her.

Sean took two steps forward and tried to bring his thoughts together. "Why didn't you ever tell me?" he softly asked.

"Why?" Kim snorted, trying to fight against the tears that were starting to come to her eyes. "You go out with a lot of women, Sean, I've seen that. Sure, none of them last very long but you've made it clear that you'd rather go out with any other woman you look at other than me." She realized she had said more than she wanted to and quickly went silent once more. She could feel Sean's eyes burning at her back and waited for his next words.

"You're right," Sean said. "I do go out with a lot of women. A whole lot but none of them...well, none of them felt right. I didn't know why, they were all great but...they just didn't seem like what I wanted. None of them were what I was looking for." He let out a tiny chuckle. "Funny. It took going to another planet and nearly being tortured to death to make me realize that what I was looking for...was right in front of me all the time."

Kim was frozen for a moment, her face going blank. She slowly turned to face Sean, trying to force herself to not dare to hope. She looked at his face and saw an expression of desire that she had seen Sean hold when he talked about a woman he had just met. Only this time, not only was that directed at her but it had something added to it that Kim had never seen before.

"I'm an idiot," Sean announced. "I know that. Not just for never seeing how you felt about me. But also, for me never seeing how I felt about you." He carefully walked forward as he spoke, his eyes on Kim's. "I should have seen it long ago, should have admitted it myself years ago but I didn't. I couldn't. But now...I guess it's better late than never to say this." He took a deep breath and then spoke out strong. "I love you, Kimberly Wagner. I've loved you all my life and now that I've said it, I know I love you more than life."

Kim stared at him before closing her eyes. "Don't let me be dreaming," she whispered, tears running down her cheeks. "Please, God, don't let me be dreaming."

"Is this real enough for you?" With that, Sean moved forward and gave Kim the kiss she'd been waiting most of her life for. And it more than lived up to her expectations. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled herself closer to his body as their kiss deepened.

Any doubts Sean had over his feelings for Kim was blasted aside by the wave of absolute pleasure that came over him, in addition to an instant connection that went beyond mere friendship. He loved this woman, he knew that now and it was time to show it. However, his concern for her physical health was still strong in his mind as he broke the kiss off. "Kim," he softly said. "If you don't want to, I'd understand-----"

"I've wanted this for over ten years, Sean," Kim said, her eyes brimming with tears as she smiled. "And with you."

"Oh," Sean said. "Um, I don't...I mean, obviously I never expected to----"

"I'm on the pill."

Sean's eyebrows rose. "Wow."

"For five years."

Sean stared at her then chuckled. "Oh, God, I am an idiot."

A sultry smile came onto Kim's face. "Start making up for it." She moved in to kiss him again, their tongues wrapping together as they once more embraced. Sean's hands moved down her back and caressed her backside, causing Kim to let out a sigh through her kiss. She returned the favor, sliding her hands down and around and giving his buttocks a tight squeeze. Sean grunted and Kim could feel his now-erect cock pressing against her leg. She managed to break away from Sean and stepped back, her hands fumbling at the clasp of her robe. Taking a deep breath, she opened it up and pushed it away, letting it fall to a pool at her feet and showing off her naked body.

Sean just stared at her. Her well-trimmed frame showed the hours of exercise she put in every week but was still incredibly feminine. Her full breasts hung perfectly on her and as she gave a slow turn, Sean could see a heart and dagger tattoo on her right shoulder. She finished her turn and faced him, biting her lip as she waited for him to speak.

"You're beautiful," Sean whispered. "How could I have never seen just how beautiful you are?"

Kim couldn't take it anymore, moving forward and embracing Sean into another hot kiss. As he returned it, Sean fumbled with his own robe, with Kim helping. Soon, it joined hers on the floor as the two officers stumbled toward the bed, falling onto it and rolling about. Years of hidden passion were coming loose in moments as the two continued to kiss and caress the other's bodies, loving the chance to finally be able to enjoy the moment.

Kim ended up on top, pressing her body down on Sean as they kissed. She moved herself up, letting Sean's hands clasp her full breasts. Kim groaned as she felt Sean squeeze at her chest, kneading her breasts in his hands. Maybe it was the fact that they belonged to a woman he knew he loved but Sean considered them the most perfect pair of breasts he had ever seen or felt. He brought one down to his mouth and let his lips circle the nipple. Kim gasped as she felt him suckle on her breast, pressing both together as he let his tongue drag along them. She cupped them together, pressing them down so Sean could get at them easier. She suddenly let one hand drift down to Sean's lap, her hand clenching at his cock. Sean gasped around Kim's breast as he felt her hand rub at his shaft, lengthening it out and sending Sean to the edge.

The heat of the moment, the knowledge that this was actually happening to her at long last, was making Kim more aroused than she had ever been in her life. She was tired of waiting, it was time to consummate her love with Sean.

She moved herself up and spared a glance at Sean's lap. Her eyes widened at the sight of his rock-hard penis. *God, it's even bigger than I thought!* She looked down at Sean, his hands still clutching at her breasts. His eyes told her that he was as ready as she was and Kim knew it was time. She shifted herself down, spreading her legs and sliding her pelvis onto Sean's rod. She let out a squeal as she felt his member enter her and shifted herself about to take him in. As soon as she had, she began rocking herself back and forth, squeezing her thighs together to feel him inside her. To her delight, Sean quickly matched her rythym, giving his cock small thrusts in and out of her as Kim worked against him.

She moved herself up a bit, her long blond hair cascading around her, part of it on Sean's face, her hands on his broad shoulders for balance as she rocked on him. His hands once more found her breasts and squeezed them, causing her to let out a yelp. He groaned as he felt himself build inside her. "God, Kim...." he let out. "This is..."

"Shhh...." Kim whispered. "Let me....enjoy it...I've waited so long, Sean....Oh, God, baby, you're so good....!" She moved up a bit, her breasts bouncing slightly with each thrust forward, Sean's hands moving away from them. They slid down her flat stomach and hips before coming around to her rear end. Kim gasped as she felt his hands clutch at her buttocks and squeeze. "Oh shit, Sean!" she let out. "I'm...Oh, God, I'm ready, I'm sooo ready..." She resisted the urge to just sit right up. She had long decided that if this ever happened, she wanted to be able to look him in the face, to see his joy when they orgasmed together for the first time. She briefly closed her eyes as she felt the first drops of his semen start to enter her.

Sean squeezed her ass again, closing his eyes as he felt his cock ready to burst inside her. Their movements became more frenetic, the thrusts stronger as each knew the time was coming close to climax. "Kim..." he gasped. "I'm gonna come...."

"I'm ready..." Kim whispered. "Oh, God, Sean, I'm ready, please..."

"I love you, Kim, oh, God, I love you!" With that, Sean let himself release, a white flash filling his vision as he came inside her. Kim arched herself back, her hair whipping back as she screamed in pure ecstasy, first as she felt Sean's wad blasting into her, then as she felt herself release with him. She remained frozen for a long moment as the wave stuck her before slumping down onto him. Both heaved with breath, their bodies stained with sweat as they tried to climb down from the mountain of joy they had just reached.

"Of all the ways I've imagined our first time," Kim gasped. "And I've imagined quite a few...In a temple under a waterfall on an alien planet was never in the top fifty."

"You always said I could be counted on for the unexpected," Sean returned. He brought her down and pressed his lips on hers for a long kiss. They finally broke apart and Kim took a breath.

"You think we'll get in trouble for this?" she asked, frowning. "Making love in a temple, that is."

The smile Sean gave her lit up her heart. "It's worth anything we get from above."

Kim felt tears return to her eyes. "God, I love you," she whispered.

"And I love you," Sean replied. "And it feels good to say it. Oh, God, Kim, I'm sorry we didn't get to this before."

"It's okay," Kim said, her hand caressing his face as she smiled down at him. "It is, Sean. Better late than never, right?"

"Right," Sean smirked. "Well, seeing as how I've got a few years to make up for..."

Kim raised an eyebrow. "You're ready to go again already?"

Sean gave her a smile. "I think we just wanted to get to it before," he stated. "Now that we know we can work...let's enjoy it this time." With that, he wrapped his arms around her and rolled them over with Kim on her back. She sighed and spread out her arms, lying back on the bed as Sean once more made her dreams come true.

The prayer hall was quiet when Eril entered it, still dressed in his uniform. He stopped as he saw Ujaki by the altar, lighting a trio of candles in an ornate holder. It was still taking Eril some difficulty to accept that his old friend and commanding officer was still alive. And a priest of all things was even harder to believe. Taking a breath, Eril stepped forward until he was behind Ujaki, then lashed out a hand.

With a speed that belied his age, Ujaki ducked to one side, then reached out his hand, clasping Eril by the elbow and shooting a fist out at him. The fist stopped inches from Eril's face, the two remaining frozen for a moment. Suddenly, Eril let out a laugh and shook his head. "You still have the reflexes, I see," he stated. "It is good to see you again, General."

"Please, Eril, it's just Ujaki now," the monk said as he released Eril's arm and backed away. "Actually, it's Monk Senior but I will accept your being more informal."

"Yes, that always was your style," Eril remembered. He glanced toward the area where the living quarters were. "I suspect it still is." He looked at Ujaki and raised an eyebrow. "You do know what they're doing there, don't you?"

Ujaki nodded. "I do."

Eril waited and then pressed on. "And?"

Ujaki smiled. "I believe that when true love is involved, then the Gods can make any exception."

Eril sighed. "It's still strange to hear you talk like a religious man." He looked back at Ujaki and smiled. "But it's good to hear you talk at all."

"I feel the same," the monk dryly replied. He looked back at the living quarters and raised an eyebrow of his own. "They are...interesting beings."

"More than you know," Eril stated. "They talked back to Fahn as if he was beneath their notice. This wasn't bravado, it was a deliberate act formed by a character containing sheer will." He shook his head. "I tell you, Ujaki, if the rest of their race is anything like them, then they may well be the most dangerous breed of humans in the cosmos."

A loud yelling sound came to their ears and the two glanced to the bedrooms. "They're certainly among the loudest," Ujaki muttered. He sighed and turned back to Eril. "Care to join me for a bite to eat and to discuss old times?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Eril answered. The two turned and walked away, leaving behind them the sounds of two police officers becoming partners in more ways than one.

*****

Part twelve: In which not-so-conjugal visits are paid and things get more complicated.

Joyce Summers Home
Sunnydale, CA
May 25th, 1999
2204 Hours PST

The basement of Joyce's house wasn't exactly made for containing prisoners but given the free space available, there was enough for Zev. He was lying on a makeshift bench, his hands behind his head, appearing surprising nonchalant given the circumstances. When the door leading to the basement banged open, he looked to the side and glowered. "I am not in the mood," he announced.

"Frankly, I don't think they care," Jenny stated from her position near the stairs. She was keeping a sharp eye on the field containing Zev, making sure it was holding strong. Giles had aided the witches in putting it together, making it stronger than before and not as susceptible to such easy tricks as Zev had pulled before. Willow and Amy were upstairs, still recovering from Zev's assault and Jenny had volunteered to keep watch and make sure he didn't try anything. Now, she had company.

Buffy, Kendra and Faith each spared a nod at Jenny before coming to where Zev lay. Buffy's face was drawn with anger, Faith appeared satisfied and Kendra had a rougher edge than normal. Zev stared upward, taking in their glares before finally speaking. "What do you want?"

"Just wanted to talk to you," Faith put in.†

"Actually, I wanted to hit you but I was outvoted," Buffy stated.†

Zev rolled his eyes. "Ladies, the only thing you three have done this evening to ingratiate yourselves upon me was to try to attack me and allow me to beat on you all. Now, that was a brief moment of fun so I'll cut you some slack there but for now, I'd really appreciate being alone."

"Tough," Faith grunted. "You screwed around with our mom, asshole."

Zev slowly turned his head to look at the brunette, the blond and the black-skinned woman on the end. "Yes, I see the family resemblance," he remarked with as dry a tone as possible.

Buffy stepped forward, crossing her arms and glaring right at Zev. "You don't screw with me or my family," she hissed. "Not now, not ever. Coming here hunting down Roz was bad enough. But to screw my mom over just to get your jollies? That gets me pissed."

"Yes, I sensed that when you were trying to decapitate me," Zev remarked. "Not that I need to defend myself to you but your mother did appear to be a very interesting person and one I wanted to get to know better as long as I was in town."

"And then to leave behind when you were through?" Kendra glowered.

"Something like that," Zev stated. "Of course, I had a feeling she wouldn't exactly be in the best of conditions when I left."

Faith's nostrils flared. "Are you saying you expected Joyce to end up dead by the time you were done?"

Zev remained silent and Buffy's teeth ground together. "Jenny, drop this thing, I'm gonna kick his----"

"Girls." The three froze and then slowly turned to see Joyce climb down the stairs. Beside her, Sherlock padded down by her side, obviously ready to defend Joyce if need be. The elder Summers gave the girls a strong look as she made it to the bottom of the stairs. "Girls," she repeated. "I'd like to have a talk with Zev." She let her eyes glance toward Jenny. "Alone."†

"Mom, that's not such a good----"

"Buffy, he's behind a mystical force field and I have a dog who can change into a monster wolf ready to attack if need be. I can handle a conversation."

A long silence went over the basement. The three Slayers obviously didn't like the idea but a single look from Joyce was enough to close that conversation. With a last row of icy glances at Zev, the three marched away and up the stairs. Jenny backed as far toward the stair as she could. "I'm sorry," she called out to Joyce. "It's better that I stay here, to make sure the field's intact."

Joyce nodded and stepped forward, Sherlock at her side. They came up to the field as she stared at Zev. He slowly sat up, crossing his arms and returning her gaze without backing down. Joyce looked him over for a moment before speaking. "How are you?"

Zev seemed a little surprised at the question. He moved one arm out and his spikes popped out. Joyce could see that two of them were still broken. "These will take a while to get fixed," he stated. "I took a few rough shots but I heal like you wouldn't believe."

"You'd be surprised," Joyce remarked. She set her jaw and tried to keep calm.†

"May I ask just what the plan is?" Zev remarked. "Surely, there are better places to put me then in your basement, particularly seeing as how I've already caused some damage to your house."

"Roz has to wait until midnight to do what she needs to do," Joyce stated. "After that's over..."

"I can guess the rest," Zev remarked sardonically. He sighed and shook his head. "Wouldn't you know it. The one woman in...well, a long time that I feel like knowing better and her daughter just happens to be in my sister's employ."

"My daughter doesn't work for anyone," Joyce stated. "She did this because it's what she wanted to do."

"What a lovely little moral code she has," Zev sardonically said. He got to his feet and began to pace his small area. "Is she a law enforcement officer?"

"No," Joyce replied. "All three of them are."

Zev took a moment to shrug that off. "I know what you want to ask me. And the answer is...I asked you out because it's something I felt like doing."

Joyce stared at him. "That's it? That's your whole answer?"

"I don't make many attachments in my life, Joyce," Zev said. "That shouldn't be much of a surprise, given what I do with it. So, when I saw someone whom I thought would be a nice way to kill some time with, I took it upon myself to try and make that happen." He snorted. "And now look at just where that lovely little trip has gotten me."

/Sheesh, what a grouch/ Sherlock remarked inside Joyce's head.

"You stay out of this!" Zev snapped, pointing a finger at the dog. "I have enough problems on my mind as it is."

It took Joyce and Sherlock a moment to realize that Zev had been addressing the dog directly. "You...you can hear him?" Joyce stammered in shock.

"Low-level telepathic abilities," Zev said. "It's a male trait in my species." He smirked at Sherlock. "It's usually only effective with lower animals."

/HEY!/ Sherlock growled at the man. /Don't get high and mighty on me, buddy, remember who's imprisoned right now!/

"I can get out if I feel like it," Zev sniffed.

/Yeah, right./

"You doubt me?" Zev hissed.

/Considering it was a wolf who took you down, I think whistling in the dark is the term that applies here./

"Don't make me have to curb you."

"Okay, let's just calm down here and-----" Zev stopped and closed her eyes. "I'm moderating an argument between a dog and an alien. This isn't life, it's Kafka." Taking a deep breath, Joyce tried to get her bearings back. "Look, I just want to say one thing."†

She drew herself up and glared at Zev. "I haven't made many connections since I came here to Sunnydale and my...romantic history isn't something I'm happy about." She narrowed her eyes at Zev and delivered the rest of her statement coldly. "So, you can imagine how hurt I was at the fact that a man I had hoped would be a charming and considerate host was using me. I don't like that. I really don't. If your task was to try and hurt me, you did. But you won't do it again. Believe me on that."

She turned on her heel and began to walk away. Sherlock threw a growl at Zev before turning to join her.

"Joyce." At his simple word, Joyce turned to see Zev staring at her. It was without malice, without anger. When he spoke, it was a flat, simple tone, the tone of a man who meant every word he said as absolute fact. "You're going to die, Joyce. You, your daughters, your friends, this town...you're all going to die. Believe me on that."

"Ever the sweet-talker, Zev." Joyce and Zev turned to see Roz stepping into the basement. She smiled as she walked past Joyce and toward the field. Joyce could see Zev instantly stiffen and glare at the woman. Roz let her eyes rake up and down Zev's body and her smile widened. "All dressed up and no place to go. Story of your life, huh, bro?"

Zev set his jaw before speaking. "If these are the last hours I have," he stated. "I'd appreciate it if I didn't have to spend them with you."

Roz appeared hurt. "Aw, come on, Zev. Don't be so mad just because I busted up your little dinner date."

Zev rushed to the edge of the field, only to bounce off the shield with a† shower of painful sparks. Roz didn't step back but kept smiling as Zev staggered back. "Ah, Zev. You never knew when to quit while you're ahead." She leaned in, her face inches before the field. "This will go much more smoothly if you just bow to the inevitable."

"You want inevitable?" Zev snarled as he looked back up at Roz, his eyes flaring. "Fine. Here's inevitable. Someone will kill you. I don't know who but I'm not the only one who wants you dead. Somewhere, someday, someone will kill you. And when you get to the Crossroads of Jurden, I'll be there to shove you through the door to Surton."

Roz smirked. "Don't expect to see me there for a very long time." She stepped back and let out a little laugh. "You've lost, Zev. It seems a shame that the chase has to end like this but that's life for you." She turned and began to walk away. "Enjoy what you have of yours." She brushed past Jenny and Joyce and marched back up the stairs.†

Joyce watched her go and then turned toward Jenny. "She seems happier," she stated.

"She's gotten the man stalking her off her back for good," Jenny replied. "That would brighten anyone up."

"I suppose," Joyce stated. "When does she plan to leave?"

"This conjunction occurs at midnight," Jenny stated. "She's been having us give her crystal some boosts."

Joyce glanced at her. "Boosts?"

"Nothing too major," Jenny said. "Just enough to get her started before she can open the portal. For such a small item, it appears to be able to do a lot."

Joyce sniffed. "Maybe she should use that ring of hers. That's almost as big a rock."

Jenny frowned. "Ring?"

"Yes, that red one on her left hand," Joyce said. "You saw it, right?"

Jenny furrowed her brow. "Hmmm. Never really took it in before. Interesting."

Joyce spared a final look at Zev and saw him lying back on the bench, appearing a bit deflated. She began to march back up the stairs, Sherlock by her side.

/What's up?/ the dog asked.

/I don't know/ Joyce admitted. /Something...Something just doesn't seem as right as it should be. I don't know what but...something.../ She shook her head. /I have to go and talk to Ulric./

Sherlock did the canine equivalent of raising an eyebrow. /Wow. He's driven you to the church?/

/Not quite/ Joyce stated. /Not...quite./

"One great thing about spatial hopping," Roz remarked as she sipped at her drink. "I save a fortune on luggage." She had a small bag by her side with some clothing in it, sitting by her chair. She was in Joyce's kitchen, several sheets of paper before her, scrawled with equations and diagrams that not even Willow could make any sense out of. The teenager equation of Section Seven was with her, watching as Roz continued her equations.

"Are you sure you don't need anything else?" Faith threw in.†

"Yes, Faith, I am," Roz said. "Look, I appreciate the attention, guys, but I do need to get ready. I've only got about an hour before I have to do this."

"Well, we don't get too many aliens around here," Xander stated. "We want to savor the experience as much as we can."

"Open to new experiences, I like that," Roz remarked. She suddenly rose up and moved out of the room. "Sorry, guys, I have to check something with my own stuff quick."

"You sure you have to go?" Randi said. "As long as we have Zev, you're safe if you want to stay a while."

"Tempting," Roz admitted. "Especially with how great a bunch of kids you guys are. But as long as I'm on this planet, he's going to try and break out and a lot of people can get hurt." She smiled. "But trust me, I'm not forgetting what you guys did for me anytime soon." She moved out and toward the upstairs.

"Hey, Roz?" The alien stopped and turned toward the bottom of the stairs where Faith and Shaw were coming up to her. She stepped down a bit as they came closer. "Look," Faith said, taking a breath. "We wanted to talk to you real quick."

"Um, I'm a little pressed for time, Faith," Roz said, glancing at the nearby clock.†

"It will not take long," Shaw stated. "Faith and I merely wished to say that it was a pleasure having met you."

Roz appeared startled by that statement. "Um...Okay." She stepped down to look at the duo. "Ah, no offense, girls, but the two of you didn't quite strike me as the type to make fast friends."

"It is our way," Shaw remarked. "But we are sorry to see you leave so soon."

"Yeah, I was really getting to like you, Roz," Faith stated. "Me, it takes a while to warm up to folks but you...Well, I guess you could call it kinship."

Roz frowned. "Kinship?"

Faith sighed and took a seat on the bottom stoop, looking up at Roz. "My life ain't been wine and roses either," she said. "I don't know if it's as bad as yours but..." She sighed and shook her head. "You had your brother wanting to kill you. I had my stepdad trying to beat and even rape me before I left him. Then, I got called to be a Slayer and taken in by a great lady, the both of us lied to by the guys who were supposed to helping us out." Faith's eyes took on a sad look. "Then, I had to see the woman I had come to think of like a mom killed before my eyes and I couldn't do anything about it." She took a deep breath to steel herself as she looked back up at Roz. "I've been through a lot, Roz. Maybe not as much as you but still a lot. And let me give you a piece of advice. If you see a chance to try and make your life better...take it. Trust me, it's worth it."

Roz was silent as she absorbed Faith's words, allowing Shaw to step in. "I know what it is like to feel alone from those around you, Roz. It was a great part of my life for several years and even early in my time here, I felt isolated. It took a time before I felt fully comfortable here but I finally learned to accept this as my home and these people as my second family. I do not expect you to stay. If you must leave, then that is your decision and I respect that."†

Shaw took a breath and looked up at Roz. "But...I will miss you, Roz. I do not form close connections to people in a short time but you...I do wish we could hang together more."

"So do I," Roz sighed. "But, I've got things I have to do elsewhere. I...don't know if I'll be back here anytime soon." She smiled at the two women. "But trust me, girls. I promise that I'm going to remember you two and what you've done for me for a long time to come." She looked back up the stairs and started to back up. "Sorry, I really have to check this out. I'll be right back." She quickly moved up the stairs, leaving the two behind.

The Slayer and the Harper looked at each other. "I've gotta admit, the gal grew on me," Faith stated. "More than I thought she would."

"She does have a way about her," Shaw stated. "Something that gets you to trust her. Rather like Robin and Liam have."

"Hmmm, no wonder you like her," Faith teased. "Getting a little homesick for the Limerick and Shamrock Connection?"

Shaw looked down at her feet. "I do wish they were back, yes," she stated. "Robin's presence would he an aid right now. And I could even put up with Liam's antics at this moment."

"I bet you could..."

"Faith!"

Zev looked up as the door to the basement opened again and Steve walked down. The alien glanced at his watch and then back to Steve. "I don't suppose you'll honor my last request and explain just why you people have this need to schedule executions at midnight?"

Steve carefully folded his arms in a way that let the large gun at his waist be seen. He glanced over at Jenny and Giles, who had followed Steve in. "Ready?"

The two nodded, and Steve turned back to Zev. "They're lowering it in a second," he stated. "And then we're going to take a walk outside. Be warned that we've got the others spread out, all ready to make a move if you try anything. You do and the beating we gave you earlier will seem like mild exercise."

"Beating you gave me?" Zev sniffed as he rose to his feet. "Is self-delusion genetic in this race? It would explain a lot."

Steve stepped forward and glared at him. "This can go nice and easy," he stated in a low tone. "Or I can give you pain in places you can't even imagine."

"You'd be surprised how much pain I can live with," Zev shot back. He crossed his arms and brought up his chin. "Ready when you are."

Steve gave a short nod and Giles and Jenny stepped forward. A wave of their hands and the field fell before Zev. He remained motionless, all too aware that making a move at this moment wasn't the best idea. He carefully walked forward, taking a spot before Steve. Steve backed up and motioned forward, Zev obeying the direction and carefully walking toward the stairs. "Not even a last meal?" he asked in a calm voice. "I expected that at least."

"Do you want us to gag him?" Giles asked as he and Jenny followed Steve.†

"I'll keep that in mind," Steve replied as Zev reached the top of the stairs. Buffy was there, her sword out and ready, her eyes pure ice as she glared at Zev. Joyce was nearby, giving Zev a blank look. Zev paused, staring right at her before being pushed by Steve. "Keep moving," he stated as he directed Zev toward the back.

"You strike me as an intelligent man, Mr. St. Wolf," Zev stated. He noticed Shaw, Faith and Kendra in the living room, falling in with the others as they passed by. "I don't suppose I could talk you into helping me?"

"Not a chance," Steve said.

"Are you certain?" Zev pressed. "I could offer you a lot more than Roz could. Unlike her, I can guarantee your survival."

"I'm sure," Xander said as he and Cordelia moved to join the others in the kitchen. "Is that what you were showing us before?"

Zev glanced over at the duo. "I was attempting to show you skill, a trait I believe you sorely need." His eyes raked over the duo. "Not to mention a new dress sense."†

"Just keep moving," Steve ordered. "As soon as Roz is done, we're sending you directly to the nearest maximum security prison we can find before the MiB decide what to do with you."†

Zev stopped in place and turned toward him. His face was furrowed with puzzlement. "Prison?" he asked. "You're sending me to a prison?"

"We are," Steve answered. "Do you want me to go over your rights? I know you're not technically a citizen of Earth so it may not mean anything to you but I do hate having to let you go on a technicality. So, you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law, you have the right-----"

"Hold," Zev interrupted. He narrowed his eyes at Steve. "Are you saying...you're not going to kill me?"

"Not if you don't press us," Steve informed him. "So, don't."

Zev bent his head to the side and studied Steve carefully. "Mr. St. Wolf...I'm beginning to get an inkling that you and I have been having different ideas on just what this situation entails. Do you know what she's planning to do?"

"We do," Steve said. "Leave Earth and you behind while we keep an eye on you."

Zev's eyes widened slightly. "Leave me...Mr. St. Wolf, I think we need to talk----"

"Sorry, no time," Steve said, pulling out his gun and aiming it right at Zev. "Get back moving."

"Mr. St. Wolf, I really do believe we have to-----"

Steve aimed the gun down. "One more word and it's your kneecaps. I think that'll keep even you down for a while."

Zev opened his mouth but the clicking of the safety convinced him not to talk. Instead, giving Steve a dark look, he turned and continued on his way outside. However, as he passed through the door in the kitchen, his face was suddenly far more anxious than it had been before, as if realizing that there was something in all of this he hadn't been expecting. He was trying to touch on it as he entered the backyard.†

There, Willow, Oz and Larry stood before an odd-looking device. It was a circular platform, about fifteen feet wide and raised about four feet above the ground. In the middle was a long and tall shaft of light that† held the crystal Roz had been keeping with her in midair. A large metal arm extended over the crystal, a pointed device at the end aiming downward. Roz stood before the device, clicking some keys on a small pad with Randi looking over her shoulder.

"Where the hell did this come from?" Steve demanded.

"She put this thing down, hit a button and it just...grew," Willow explained. "Like a Jiffy-Pop."

Zev rolled his eyes. "Equating a device such as this to a snack treat. I can see this species won't be missed."

"Hey, just because we're listed as 'Mostly Harmless' in the *Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...*" Xander started.

Zev looked at him quizically. "What does a book by Douglas Adams have to do with anything?"

Xander frowned. "Wait. You mean there isn't a real *Hitchhiker's Guide?*"

Zev stared at him. "You actually think someone could write a guide to the entire galaxy, considering there are parts of it unexplored, parts controlled by forces no one wants to go against and there are barely enough space-faring races to maintain a regular tourist trade? You actually believed there was a real *Guide?*" He rolled his eyes. "Jurden, what a species."†††

Steve turned toward Roz. "Are you ready?"

"Just about," she spoke out in a bright tone. "I'll be out of your hair in a few minutes. Unless I've got bits of it on me, of course."

Steve frowned as he watched Roz click a button and step back. "Okay, folks, get ready for the fireworks!" she announced as she stared up at the device.

Steve took a step forward but was stopped when he felt Zev's hand grip his arm. He spun and saw the alien holding a look of intensity mixed with desperation and...concern?

"Mr. St. Wolf," he hissed. "I am not a man who begs for anything for myself. But for your sake, for your planet's sake, don't do this. Do you want what's about to happen on your soul?"

"What do you mean?" Steve asked. "She's leaving, you're staying, end of story."

Zev stared at him and then his eyes widened as he something clicked in his brain. "Great Jurden," he whispered. "You don't know. You honestly don't know what she's going to do. You're not allying with her, you're being used by her!"

Steve frowned. "What are you talking about?" Somewhere in his mind, an alarm bell suddenly went off. A bell, Steve realized with a start, that he should have heard a while ago.

"I think what he's talking about is this," Roz smiled as she nodded at the device. From the needle-like attachment at the top came a beam of bright red light that bisected the crystal, causing it to shine. The beam continued through and into the ground, burrowing into the dirt.†

Zev relaxed his grip on Steve, his face darkening into sad acceptance. "Too late," he whispered. "Too late for you all."

"What do you mean?" Steve was getting a very bad feeling all of a sudden and he also felt it was getting worse.†

"I think what he means," Roz piped in as she looked over some readouts on the device. "Is that the beam you're seeing is burrowing its way through the mantle of your planet until it gets to the right level. At which point, this baby will kick into high gear and initiate the wave of destruction." She swiftly glanced at her watch. "I'd say that every single living being on this planet has about...oh...fifteen minutes left to live."

Everyone stared at her dumbly. "Um...what?" Willow stammered. "I...I don't understand."

"Well, I don't expect you to, Willow," Roz said as she turned toward the redhead, a wicked smirk on your face. "After all, you're just..." She frowned and looked up. "Let's see, what's the term they have here...?" Her face brightened and she smiled at Willow. "Oh, yes, that's right. You're just a stupid kike."

Willow felt like she'd just been kicked in the gut. Randi's eyes widened as she reached toward Roz. "Roz, what are you----"

With blinding speed, Roz grabbed Randi by the arm, yanked her in, moved behind the blonde and held out an arm. Three spikes erupted from her inner forearm and in one swift motion, Roz used them to slit Randi's throat. She let go as Randi stood, her hand to her neck, choking as her blood poured out, more shocked by Roz's actions then by the wound. With a savage kick, Roz sent the teen flying off the platform and face-down on the ground where she died.

Frozen in shock, none of the others were ready to stop Roz as she hit a button on the control panel. Instantly, a bright purple sheath of energy covered the entire platform and Roz with it. She looked up at them and smiled widely. At the same time, her eyes changed. Literally. They shifted from a dark blue to a bright green and yellow but more importantly, they shifted from caring and concern to the eyes of an utter and complete madwoman.

Looking down at Randi's corpse, Roz sniffed. "Jurden, I've been wanting to do that for a while." She straightened up and reached to her hand, yanking off the ring that had been adorning her finger. Almost as one, the gang started, first upon realizing they had never really noticed the ring before, then by the sudden clarity that came over them. Doubts that had been long hidden flashed into their minds. Inconstincies in Roz's story, the way they had just believed her entirely, the fact that it hadn't even entered their minds to question her or cast any truth spells or anything else that would mean not accepting what she was saying.

"Iramanus crystals," Roz stated in a suddenly arrogant tone, tossing the ring up and down in her palm. "For the very best in subliminal/empathic jewelry designed to lower the mistrust level in people you've just met and get them to buy any story you spin them, I recommend them highly." She laughed. "Of course, it helps that you people will buy just about anything. "

She looked out over the shocked group and her smile widened. "Faith," she called out in a sardonic tone. "Let me give you a piece of advice. You're an idiot." With that, she threw her head back and laughed long and loud as the machine behind her continued to build in strength.

*****

Part thirteen: In which reunions take place, secrets are laid bare and comfort is found.

The Neiluian Forests

The afternoon sun was beginning its movement toward the west, shafts of light managing to make their way through the mass of foliage high above to illuminate the village. The majority of the Peritusans were busy keeping an eye on the Grantons who had come to the village and were congregating on the far side. Evidently, there was a bit of bad blood between the two groups, which naturally caused a tad of worry for the Earthlings. However, at the moment, three of them had other concerns.

"AH!" Lucy yelled as she stumbled to her knees, a hand clutched to her side. She gritted her teeth as she pulled her hand back, seeing the blood on it. "God, that hurt!"

"Good," Maximus said as he gave his sword a spin. "The lessons sink in much faster with a bit of blood."

Lucy rose to her feet as she shot a glare at Elizabeth, who was sitting on a log nearby. The three Immortals were in a small clearing at the base of one of the massive trees of the village. Lucy had borrowed a short sword from the local armory and was being given the rudiments of dueling courtesy of the two elder Immortals. As one could imagine, learning how to kill was anew experience for a woman who had spent years learning how to save lives.

Lucy looked down at her side, seeing the flashes of energy as her wound healed. "God, I still can't believe this," she whispered.

"You'll get used to it," Elizabeth stated.

"You keep saying that," Lucy replied. "And I have my doubts." She looked at Elizabeth and lightly chuckled, shaking her head. "I still can't believe I'm talking to Moll Flanders."

Elizabeth groaned and held up a hand. "All right, let me make this clear. At least 80 percent of that book was either totally made up or vastly over exaggerated. That whole thing about me marrying my own brother, for example."

"Oh," Lucy said. "So, you never had an affair with a female thief and let her be hanged for your crimes?"

Elizabeth looked away with a guilty expression and Lucy's eyes widened. "What? You----"

"It's all right," Elizabeth quickly said. "She was an Immortal." She sighed deeply. "I do hope Amanda's gotten over that by now..."

Lucy took a moment to shake that off before speaking. "You still expect me to do this Zorro stuff?"

"Funny you should mention that..." Elizabeth stopped and laughed at the look of shock on Lucy's face. "No, he's not Immortal. What I mean is that I teach matters of skill rather than brute force. Look at my sword." She held up her blade. "It's not one of those Braveheart two-handed jobs. This is one for those who use skill, agility, poise, a lady's weapon if you will."

"So, you need to be fast to use that," Lucy said, seeming uncertain.

"Exactly," Elizabeth said. "The most powerful Immortal can still be taken down by a well-placed thrust."

Lucy shook her head. "I just don't see myself using something like a big knife."

"Lucy..."

"Elizabeth," Maximus interrupted. "If I may?" Elizabeth looked at him, then nodded and stepped aside. Maximus stepped forward to face Lucy. "Lucy, if I may make a suggestion based on your comments. Think of a Scottish Claymore. Picture it in your mind."

Lucy paused to get the image and nodded. "Got it. Big and nasty."

"Think of it as an economy-sized butcher knife."

"And Elizabeth's sword?"

"Economy-sized scalpel. Which needs more skill and precision to use?"

Lucy's eyes widened slightly as the point sunk in and Elizabeth snorted. "Show-off."

Maximus smiled as he lifted up his sword. "Shall we try again?"

"How about, no?" Lucy groaned as she straightened up. "I need a quick break." She glanced around the surrounding trees and shook her head. "They've got flying carriers in that city and they still haven't invented indoor plumbing?" she muttered as she marched toward the nearest bush.

Maximus watched her go and then turned toward Elizabeth with a serious look on his face." I'm not sure how ready she can be," he stated. "This isn't the type of life for her."

"She has to be ready," Elizabeth noted.

"She's younger than you and I were when she died," Maximus pointed out. "She's not ready for this."

"She'd better be," Elizabeth replied. "She has to survive, like we have. I was a lady and I managed."

"I was a warrior before I died," Maximus told her. "I just became better at it afterward. Swords were a lot more common in the old days as well. She's not used to what we have to do, Elizabeth. And scaring the hell out of her isn't going to make it work."

Elizabeth sighed and rubbed at her neck. "I'm going to be honest, Maximus. I've never had a student before and frankly, I'm not quite sure if I'm doing the right thing."

"Just remember what your teacher did and try to repeat the best lessons," Maximus informed her.

"You've had students, right?" Elizabeth asked.

"Oh, quite a few," Maximus said. "My first one was a man whose first death was at Arthur's final battle."

Elizabeth stared at him. "You knew King Arthur?"

"Not personally, no," Maximus said. "But I was at the fight." He sobered in remembrance. "I saw too much death there. Too many lives cut short. Including the man I taught." He sighed. "It's never easy to see."

"I know," Elizabeth sadly agreed. "But we never get a choice as to how it happens." She paused and looked at him carefully. "How did you find out?"

Maximus made a slight smile. "Actually, it's interesting. I didn't know at first. Oh, I remembered dying and waking up in a burial tomb made it clear something had happened. I really had nothing left for me in Rome so I managed to leave and traveled. I kept going until I reached Egypt, reached the deserts and that's when it happened."

"What?" Elizabeth asked, curious.

Maximus rubbed at his chin. "I was crossing an expanse at twilight when it hit me for the first time. The Buzz, that is. I marched over a dune and saw two men dueling it out below me. As I watched, one managed to take out a crossbow and fired an arrow into the side of the other. I was struck by the sheer unfairness of it all and so before the man could make the killing stroke, I attacked him."

"You interfered in a duel?" Elizabeth exclaimed.

"As I said, I didn't know about the Game or the rules," Maximus explained. "We fought briefly and beheading was a favored tactic of the Legion." A rueful smile came onto his face. "I can't begin to describe my amazement when lightning came out of his body and the Quickening hit me."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "And I thought my first time was a shock."

"Well, it explained quite a bit," Maximus confessed. "And the man I had saved filled in the rest. Ardeth Bey, a desert warrior who had once been a bodyguard for Seti the First and who helped me get used to my new life."

"We always need someone for that," Elizabeth said. She looked around her and sighed. "Of course, there are always some things you never expect to have happen to you." She brushed back a curly lock of hair from her face. "I never imagined in my life that I would be on an alien world with a pair of faeries nearby."

"The alien world bit was a new one for me too," Maximus told her. "The supernatural aspects, however, I'm used to."

"Ah, from your long life?"

"Actually, my first encounter with the unnatural came before I became Immortal." As Elizabeth stared at him, Maximus elaborated. "It was about five years before. I was leading my regiment against a tribe in Scotland." He looked down at his feet with a brief twinge of guilt. "I was never comfortable with how Rome was changing at that time. How we were becoming an empire instead of a republic. Of how we were forcing our lives and ways on others."

"You weren't the be-all and end-all of civilization," Elizabeth noted with just a trace of venom. "Those cities of yours were built using slave labor."

Maximus glared at her. "We didn't create the use of slave labor, Elizabeth. Your people perfected it." As Elizabeth went silent, he continued. "Unlike others in my command, I respected those who resisted us, who fought to defend their way of life. I was a citizen of Rome as well as a soldier and so it was my duty to defeat them. But I respected them still.

"In this case, I met two warriors from this tribe, two sisters, as a matter of fact. I was impressed by their courage and knowledge, of their dedication to defend their home, no matter the cost." His frown deepened. "And the cost for them was great. Many of them died to give others time to escape. I gave the order for any prisoners we had taken to be freed as well, and it was done." He glowered. "Or so I thought."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth pressed.

Pain flashed in Maximus' eyes as he remembered. "What I didn't know at the time was that one of my lieutenants, a man I trusted, had ordered the deaths of those two sisters. And not pleasant ones at that."

"What did he do?"

Maximus looked at her sadly. "Elizabeth...What is the worst crime one can inflict upon a woman?"

Elizabeth needed only a moment to realize what he was saying and paled. "He..." she choked. "He...Did that to...."

"To one of them," Maximus told her. "And made the other watch while she was being crucified."

"Oh, I hope you made him pay," Elizabeth hissed.

"I didn't need to." Maximus paused, looking off. "Have you ever heard the story," he said. "About how a crow can lead a soul back from the land of dead to avenge both themselves and a loved one?"

Elizabeth frowned. "I've heard something like that, yes..." Her eyes widened. "Are you trying to tell me..."

"Seeing a woman I knew to have been killed a year before took care of any skepticism in the tale," Maximus told her. "And that was without the changes in her face. I brought the man in, confronted him with that knowledge and the warrior in question. He confessed. And so, I let the woman accomplish the task she had been brought back from the dead to perform."

Elizabeth swallowed. "What...what did she do?"

Maximus looked at her and Elizabeth was struck by how there was the tiniest hint of fear deep in his eyes. "I have been alive for nearly two thousand years and been through more battlefields than any man has a right to," he gravely informed Elizabeth. He suppressed a shudder. "But nothing has ever quite equaled the horror of what she did."

"Did it give you nightmares?"

"No. Real life has often been nightmarish enough."

Elizabeth was silent for a moment and looked down at her feet. "Funny, I was just thinking I had been through it all," she softly said. "I keep forgetting that two hundred and sixty years really isn't that long a time."

Maximus snorted. "You should hear about the run-ins I've had with the Mystic Knights."

Elizabeth looked up, startled. "Wait a minute. Rhoan, Diedre, Angus and Ivar?"

"You know them?" Maximus asked in surprise.

"I've run into them separately over the years," Elizabeth stated. She sniffed. "Is it me or is Ivar the only sane one of the bunch?"

"You should have seen them together in their prime," Maximus told her with a smile. He looked back at the direction Lucy had left in. "She should be back by now, shouldn't she?"

"She probably felt the need to wander off," Elizabeth said. "Lord knows, we could all use a chance to clear our heads." She bit her lip as she looked at the elder Immortal. "Do you think we'll get back to Earth?"

Maximus slowly nodded. "I do. Call me overconfident but I do."

"Maximus, if a man tells me he's more confident than you are, he's either lying or he's God Almighty," Elizabeth stated. She sobered slightly as she continued. "I hope you're right. There are...things back there I don't want to leave undone."

Maximus raised an eyebrow. "Things? Or one in particular?"

Elizabeth carefully paced the ground as she mulled over the question. "I have someone," she finally said. "A fellow surgeon. I never planned on it going beyond the office but it sort of snowballed into something."

"Does he know?" Maximus gently asked.

"It's not exactly the easiest thing to tell someone," Elizabeth pointed out.

"True," Maximus admitted. He carefully studied Elizabeth's face. "Do you love him?"

Elizabeth frowned. "I don't know," she admitted. "But I do know that my suddenly vanishing would hurt him. I'd want to avoid that."

Maximus was quiet for a long moment before speaking. "You'll lose him eventually. You know that."

"I've had lovers die before," Elizabeth replied. "And friends. I may be younger than you, but I know what it's like to remain the same while everyone else ages."

"They say a person never truly dies until everyone they know has passed on," Maximus noted.

Elizabeth let out a rueful chuckle. "Ah, then between us, we're keeping several thousand people alive."

"Yes," Maximus said. "But it never gets any easier."

Elizabeth glanced at him. "Personal experience speaking?"

Maximus turned his head upward and Elizabeth realized she had touched upon a sore subject. "When I first learned what I was," Maximus said. "The most difficult part of it all was the realization that I couldn't father a child. And realizing that meant my son was not my own."

Elizabeth couldn't think of anything to say that as Maximus lowered his head. "I wondered for a time how it happened," he softly said. "But I eventually gave it up. I don't blame her. I was away for years at a time with my troops. She was alone. If she had a moment of weakness...I can't fault her for it. It did give me something special. Something I wish I could have had longer."

Elizabeth bit her lip before speaking. "I'm sorry. I can't imagine what that must have been like."

Maximus shrugged. "I wish we could have talked about it," he said. "I wish we could have talked about a lot of things. But I never got that chance."

"You loved her. You got that chance, at least."

"Sometimes, Elizabeth...even that isn't enough." The two Immortal fell silent, neither aware of the two pairs of eyes watching them that were twinkling with the beginnings of an idea...

*****

Dullrena was not happy.

Of course, that often went without saying but in this case, her obvious displeasure was becoming quite visible. This was *her* village. Her and her people's. For these off-worlders to come was bad enough. For them to invite a pack of Granton was even worse. But that one of them was the one man on Varra Fahn wanted dead put Dullrena's people into a tight spot. Dullrena hated tight spots.

She was pacing across the small space between some trees when she heard a faint whistling sound nearby. She paused, frowning as she listened, finding something oddly familiar about the sound. She made her around one of the trees and stared at the sight before her.

Mel was standing in the clearing, wearing only a light shirt and pants. In his hands, he held one of the traditional double-edged spears of the tribe, the sharp ends flashing a bit under the light. He held it over his head, giving it a quick twirl before stepping forward and thrusting one point outward. He backed away, flipping the spear onto his neck, letting it whip around him and catching it in his hands. He stepped back and twirled the spear before him, stabbing one end backward, then the other forward.

"You're four inches off on the backward thrust," Dullrena found herself saying. Mel stopped and turned toward her. The warrior stepped forward, her eyes glancing over the staff in Mel's hands. "A truly effective jerdau hi taun takes precision and grace."

"I doubt you get much opportunity to use those in battle," Mel said, placing one end of the staff into the ground and leaning on it.

"You would be surprised," Dullrena told him. A moment of silence passed before she spoke. "I do admit to some surprise that you would even be familiar with those moves."

"Part of my 'inheritance,'" Mel sardonically told her. "Along with more songs and prayers to gods no one on Earth even recognizes than I can ever use."

"He gave them to you for a reason," Dullrena stated. She looked away briefly. "I had my differences with him, as did many. But he was an honorable man. Even a good man. He deserved better than what he received."

Mel looked at her carefully. "What was he like?"

Dullrena frowned. "Don't you know?"

"I got the hologram but that was all pretty much a history lesson," Mel said. "All lectures and information. He never...I never got a sense of him the way he was. The person he was." Hissad look deepened. "The person I wish I'd known."

Within the icy nature of her being, Dullrena felt a small sliver of sympathy for the young man before her. She was silent for a moment before she spoke. "Your father...treated my people well," she finally said. "Few rulers have, as I'm sure you know. But he respected us and our ways. I do not live with many regrets, Melroy. But for what it is worth, I am sorry that I did not do more to aid him when he needed it."

"Wasn't your fault," Mel waved off. "He did what he could to hold it together. It just wasn't enough." He shook his head. "I had just managed to deal with it all when this happens. Why? Why did this have to happen?"

"Fate is not something one can fight," Dullrena told him. "It was your fate to return, your fate to fight him------"

"Fight Fahn?" Mel barked. "Come on! I'm barely passing civics, for God's sake! I've been living on another planet for my entire life! I'm only one man!"

"So was Fahn when he started," Dullrena stated. "And I suspect you have more than a few traits he rather lacked."

Mel shook his head in denial. "I can't do it," he softly said. "I can't...be that way."

Dullrena took a deep breath. "It is your choice," she stated. "At least, at this moment it is. But bear in mind one thing, young Melroy." Her eyes narrowed. "I put the safety of my people before all else. If your presence threatens our safety...I will gut you and hand your remains to Fahn myself to save us all." She turned on her heel and marched away, Mel following her with his eyes. He then looked upward and sighed. "Dad. You brought me into this life and I'm grateful. But right now, I'm sort of wishing I'd never had you as a father."

*****

The procession making its way through the forest was an odd one. At the forefront and taking up the rear were a trio of Peritusan scouts, spears ready for attack if need be. Between them were a dozen Neiterian monks, all wearing their dark robes with hoods pulled up over their heads, obscuring their features. Eril was near the head of the column, his features strong and silent as he walked across the forest floor. Behind him were Kim and Sean, the two officers quite close as they followed the aliens. Even the odd surroundings couldn't dampen the obvious afterglow the two were enjoying.

"I still don't know if this is a good idea," Eril muttered. "The Peritusans are hardly the most accommodating of hosts."

"They still honor the old ways," Ujaki softly replied. "They still give us sanctuary if need be. And we need it now."

"I hope you're right," Kim said. "Frankly, though, I could use the sight of a familiar face------"

"Hey, there, sailors," a bright voice lit out. "New in town?"

Kim and Sean both raised their heads to see Shirley looking down from her position in one of the lower branches of a tree, a wide smile on her face. Kim closed her eyes and groaned. "Why that face? God, why that face?"

Shirley grinned as she leaped down to the ground and rose before the group. "Good to see you two okay," she said in a somewhat quieter voice and Sean and Kim were both struck by the fact that she truly seemed to mean it.

"Same to you," Sean said, meaning it as well. As annoying as Shirley was, the cop in Sean still didn't want to see her get hurt because of what was happening. "Are the others here?"

Shirley nodded. "Yep. We've got ourselves a little corner shack but sadly, they've resisted my suggestions at how we 'christen' it."

Kim rolled her eyes. "God, maybe being back in that torture chamber wasn't that bad..."

"What is this?" Kim and Sean glanced up to see Dullrena marching forward, her expression even tighter than usual. She raked her eyes over the newcomers and scowled. "You know, I had been living under the apparent delusion that our lands were sacred and protected from outsiders. You are ruining years of tradition."

"We're Chicagoans," Kim shrugged. "Our traditions come first."

Sean nodded at Dullrena as he asked Shirley "Who's this?"

"Dullrena," Shirley explained. "Sort of the head honcho around here."

"Is she always..." Kim started, waving at Dullrena.

"Silent, intense, dedicated and hot as hell?" Shirley asked.

"I was going so say cold, murderous and scary."

"She and Robin used to date."

"Ah," the two cops said in understanding.

Dullrena glared at them before letting her eyes trail over their companions. They widened when they focused on Eril and recognized him. "You," she hissed, her hand clutching around her spear.

"Hey, hey, easy!" Sean said, holding up a hand. "The guy wants to turn in his swastika! We wouldn't even be here if it weren't for him!"

"And if I gave a damn for you, that might mean something but I do not so it doesn't," Dullrena replied.

"Aw, come on, Dull, let 'em in!" Shirley said. "More the merrier, right?" For emphasis, she smacked a hand on Dullrena's ass. Without even looking at Shirley, Dullrena threw a fist back, smashing it right into Shirley's chin and sending her stumbling back. The warrior kept her eyes fixed on Eril. "After all you have done, for you to dare to enter our domain..."

"I have enough shame, madam, to fill a very large book," Eril interrupted, his gaze strong as he returned Dullrena's glare. "But I am attempting to make amends for it with my actions here."

"We seek refuge," Ujaki said, his head still bowed, his voice slightly muffled by the hood over his head. "By the law, you cannot refuse us."

"Those were the old ways," Dullrena told him in a cold voice. "For better times."

"The laws still hold," Ujaki returned. "If they do not...then what good are they?"

Dullrena's eyes narrowed. What was rankling her was that, as much as she hated to admit, this monk had a point. Gritting her teeth, she slowly nodded. "Very well. You may enter. But you will be closely watched, along with the Granton."

"The Granton?" Eril asked with surprise. "You have the Granton here?"

"Not by choice," Dullrena bit out.

As she took in the ugly mood, Kim leaned in toward Sean. "I'm already regretting leaving the temple."

"So am I," Sean replied. A light smile played on his face. "If for different reasons."

"Cheap pop!"

"SHUT UP, SHIRLEY!"

*****

"I shoulda known," Cal said, trying and failing to hide a smile. "Like anything could keep those two down."

"Love you too, Reynolds," Cal remarked as he and Kim entered the center of the village. Thanks to Shirley, the word had spread to the other Chicagoans about the arrival of the two officers and they had come out to greet them.

"Thank God," Lucy remarked as she saw Sean and Kim step out of the elevator and to the tree level they were all on. "I was afraid you guys might not be back."

"So were we," Kim said as she put her hand in Sean's. Both the McDaniels and the Limerick and Shamrock Connection saw the touch and recognized it for what it was.

"Ah, so much for the matchmaking," Robin sighed.

"Ah, buck up, laddie," Liam said, patting him on the shoulder. "The best couples never really need it."

"True, true," Robin agreed.

Maximus nodded toward Eril, who was behind the duo. "Who's this?"

"A friend," Sean said. "Eril, he helped bust us out."

Eril nodded at Maximus, then his gaze moved toward Mel. "By the Great One," he whispered. "It is you. Hearing Fahn talk about you is one thing but having you here and now..."

"I'm not a sideshow freak," Mel interjected.

"No," Eril softly said. "No, you're my king. My true king."

Mel rolled his eyes. "If he bows, please throw him over the side."

"With pleasure," Dullrena said.

Robin sighed. "Mel, Mel, Mel...You can't give her straight lines like that..."

*****

"Wow, you're looking well," Lucy said as she and Elizabeth entered the room. Marybeth, Shirley and Katie were already inside one of the small hut, the group gathered around the police officer as she sat on the bed. Kim brushed her hair back into its makeshift ponytail, a tad overwhelmed by all the attention.

"I've been better," Kim sighed. "God, I still can't believe we're in a tree village with a bunch of scantily-clad warriors. I feel like I'm in a Boris Vallejo painting."

"Well, I've tried looking but I haven't seen his wife around..."

"Shut up," Lucy told Shirley before turning back to Kim. "We were worried about you two. About what might happen to you."

"It was a rough time," Kim admitted. She broke out into a smile. "But I've gotten better. A lot better."

"What do you mean?" Marybeth asked as Katie drew a wide smile. She could already tell what had happened, just as Nicky had when the duo had first seen Kim and Sean.

The blonde woman looked down at her feet and took a deep breath before speaking. "Sean...Sean said he loved me and we slept together."

"What?" Marybeth asked.

"What?" Lucy asked.

"What?" Elizabeth asked.

"SEAN SAID HE LOVED HER AND THEY SLEPT TOGETHER!" Shirley yelled with her hands cupped to her mouth.

After shaking her head, Marybeth focused on Kim. "Wait a minute. You guys did it?" As Kim nodded, Marybeth broke out into a smile. "Well, all right! Nice to see someone getting something good out of this trip."

Kim smiled widely as she sat back on the bed. "God, it was incredible. The two of us there, in the temple underneath the waterfall..."

"What?"

"What?"

"What?"

"There's some kinda delayed echo going on around here..." Shirley muttered as she glanced about. She then focused on Kim and smile. "So...we get details?"

Kim rolled her eyes. "No offense, Shirley, but I really don't want to give you details on what Sean is like in bed."

"Actually, I was thinking about you," Shirley said with a shrug.

The other women all stared at her. "What?" Shirley asked. "It's been a while..."

"Okay, change the subject, please!" Lucy begged.

"Come on, dish!" Shirley insisted.

"I don't gossip," Kim replied.

"Hey, you may call it gossip, I call it..." Shirley paused and frowned. "Well, okay, I call it gossip but that's besides the point!"

"It's...It's hard to describe," Kim softly said. "I mean, I've been dreaming about it for so many years but now that it's finally happened..." She shook her head. "It's a bit much to deal with."

Katie smiled as she leaned over and patted Kim on the arm. "It was like that with me and Nicky," she told her. "We met in a bar and half an hour later we were in bed together."

"Wow and I thought I worked fast!"

Ignoring Shirley, Katie went on. "It was a bit overwhelming to realize I was falling in love with a man I had just met. But we made it work and it's been working for the last decade. I know you and Sean can do the same."

Kim smiled at the redhead. "Thanks, Katie."

"God, I need a boyfriend," Lucy groaned. "Although talking to just women is good."

"You've got a point," Marybeth admitted. "I mean, with women, you don't have to put up with talk on sports and stupid statistics like who made the winning run of the 1960 World Series."

"Bill Mazerowski, Pittsburgh, home run, game 7," Katie, Kim and Shirley all said.

Lucy and Marybeth stared at them and shook their heads. "I give up," Lucy said. "I doubt romance with a guy will ever work for me."

"And, hey, if it doesn't, you can always-----"

"SHUT UP, SHIRLEY!"

*****

"So..." Nicky said with a smile on his face as he looked over the cop standing near the edge of the bed in another small hut. "I take it that the partnership has taken another step?"

Sean stared at him with surprise. "How did you----"

The other man shrugged. "It's a gift. I just have a knack for being able to tell when two people love each other. Can't explain it, just always had it. Same with Katie." He chuckled. "Hell, it's probably why we hooked up so fast."

"So you and Kim are banging the boots, huh?" Cal asked. "Bout damn time."

Sean fixed him with an ugly look. "Reynolds. Believe me when I tell you that I do not want to hear any lip from you regarding me and Kim. You clear on that?"

Cal held up his hands defensively. "Hey, hey, no need to break out the rubber hose!" He crossed his arms before him as he let a light smile play on his face. "In fact, if it matters, I'm hoping you two make it."

Sean blinked in mild surprise. "Well...thanks, Cal. I guess."

Cal smirked. "Yeah, don't spread it out. I'm ruining my rep already with this trip."

"Which is getting more interesting by the moment," Nicky observed as he stole a glance toward the entrance of the hut. "Those monks, the villagers, the Granton, things are getting tense." He sighed and shook his head. "God, even here people can't look beyond race..."

"Oh, this should be good," Cal snorted. "The rich white guy is gonna tell us all about race and looking beyond appearances."

Nicky glared at him. "Cal, I really don't need some sort of cliched lecture from you on how we white people constantly look down on black people. I'm above that sort of thing."

"Oh, really?" Cal scoffed.

"Yes, really," Nicky returned. "I've worked with black people quite a bit, I know they can succeed, just as long as they apply themselves. Without, I might add, quotas or special programs. They can make it in this world without being judged. I understand you people, Cal."

"Nicky, you're rich *and* you're white. Ain't no way in hell you can every understand me."

"Well, you have to at least admit that the whole 'judging by skin' is really overblown."

"Right," Cal skeptically said. He crossed his arms and leaned against a wall as he regarded Nicky. "Let me tell you all about not being judged, buddy. I knew this one guy who did get out of the Green, he went to college, graduated top of the class, became a doctor, joined this fancy medical practice. He had a wife, kids, house in the suburbs, the works, the model of American success." His eyes narrowed at Nicky. "So he comes to town for a convention, where, I might add, he's the keynote speaker and while he's waiting in the lobby, someone comes up and asks him if he's ready to take their bags up." He raised an eyebrow at the startled look on Nicky's face. "You actually gonna look me in the eye and tell me that would ever happen to a white guy."

Sean sighed and brushed at his hair. "I hate to say it, Nicky...Lord knows, I hate to say it...but Cal's got a point here. Don't quote me, but the fact is, if there's some messy robbery or killing in a mixed neighborhood, blacks are usually the first guys cops look at. And again don't quote me but black cops getting pulled over when they're off duty by white cops happens a lot more than you might think."

"And after all we've done for that town!" Cal yelled. "Jordan, Payton, Sosa, we've helped every team in Chicago!"

"Not the Black hawks," Nicky said. "In fact, that's always bugged me, why there are no black hockey players."

"Well, we had to give you guys one sport to be good at," Cal calmly answered.

The three looked at each other for a long moment, then all cracked up laughing.

Sobering, Cal looked up at Sean with what appeared to be true concern. "Listen, Sean. About Kim. Hold onto her."

Sean stared at him. "You mean that, Cal?"

"She's worth a lot, 5-O," Cal told him. "A lot more than I could ever hope to have. Don't blow it."

Sean studied him. "Cal...are you turning into a good guy?"

Cal groaned. "Sure, blow the rep..."

"Hey, you came back for us," Nicky pointed out.

Cal tried to shrug it off. "Yeah, yeah, I realized we were on an alien planet so I figured safety in numbers was better than getting lost in a cave."

Sean stared at him then smirked. "Couldn't live with deserting them, could you?"

Cal sighed. "Fine, I have a conscience, you happy?"

"Pain in the ass, ain't it?"

"No shit."

"I know the feeling." The three men looked up to see Eril standing in the doorway. "I had my conscience pushed to the backside for far too many years."

"You pulled a cock-up or two?" Cal asked with his usual tact.

"I got my sister killed because I was fighting on the wrong side," Eril snapped. "You can't understand that."

"Try me," Cal replied.

Eril glanced at him and saw something familiar in Cal's expression. "You lost a sibling, didn't you?" he softly asked.

Cal nodded. "My brother tired to take me home from a big drug party. Cops came in to bust it up, some idiot starts shooting a gunfight breaks out. My brother, whose worst offense in life was a traffic ticket, was killed." Cal looked down at his feet, willing himself not to cry. "Couldn't even look my mama in the eye after that. She went not much later and I know it was of a broken heart."

Eril was silent for a long moment. "So, you know how I feel."

"Yep," Cal said.

Eril nodded. "If I can ask...When you got your brother killed------"

"Hey!" Cal snapped but was stopped by Eril's hard gaze.

"As much as you can deny it and blame others for it, you know that if you hadn't been there, neither would he," Eril coolly said. "How long did it take for you to handle that guilt?"

Cal clenched his jaw and spoke through gritted teeth. "I haven't."

Both Nicky and Sean looked at Cal with new eyes. Eril looked at him with true understanding, knowing exactly what this man was going through. "I can't erase what I've done," he softly said. "But if I can help, in any way whatsoever, to ensure that it doesn't happen again...That may go a way toward paying penance."

"Penance," Cal remarked. "Now that's something I never thought I'd be asked about."

"Who knows, Cal?" Sean asked. "This could be your way of doing it."

Cal sighed deeply. "Ah, well. The gangster image was fun while it lasted."

*****

"This is getting out of hand," Dullrena muttered as she angrily paced her room. She looked up at the two occupants and shook her head. "First you, then the Granton, now these monks and one of Fahn's own people."

"He's not one of Fahn's people anymore," Robin pointed out. "He saved Kim and Sean and that counts for something."

"It is still not to my liking," Dullrena muttered.

"And what is?" Liam remarked. "Ye know, Dull, ye've really gotta learn to loosen up. I still don't understand what Robbie ever saw in ye------"

"Shut up, Liam!" Robin and Dullrena barked at him. The faery turned and glared at his one-time lover. "Listen, Dullrena. We want to make this as temporary a stay as possible and you're not exactly helping that along. Now, can we please try to conduct ourselves in a somewhat civil matter or me and Liam going to have to assert ourselves?"

Dullrena rolled her eyes. "Goodfellow, your threats, if I may credit them as such, are getting as tiresome as the rest of your personality. This is my land. These are my people. I will not have them threatened, no matter who it is."

"Then why aren't you doing anything about Fahn?" Robin pressed. "He's threatening you now. You know that. And he's coming for you. Sooner or later, he's coming and do you really think even you and your people can fight off all his forces?"

Dullrena smirked. "We have skills, Goodfellow. You of all people should know that."

"Lass, I'll deny I ever said this to anyone but skills will only get you so far," Liam announced. "Fahn's big, really big and your people can't stand alone against him. Face it, Dull, ye've got yerself an opportunity here."

Dullrena glanced at him with suspicion. "What opportunity?"

"Well, let's see," Robin said, rubbing his chin. "You've got the Granton here, the Peritusann and the rightful ruler of this planet. Sounds like the seeds for a revolution to me."

Dullrena stared at him for a few moments before bursting out laughing. "Oh, try harder, Goodfellow!" she got out between laughs. "Melroy doesn't want this! He doesn't want to be a ruler and he doesn't want to lead any fight! And even if he was, the idea of us and the Granton together is laughable to say the least."

"Ye're gonna have to get off this classy high-horse eventually, Dull," Liam said. "Fahn won't give a damn how important you think you are."

"Although the battle of the egos would be worth paying to see," Robin noted.

Dullrena glared at him. "I don't care about your opinions, Robin. I don't care what these friends of yours may be planning. What I care for is the safety of my people and as of now, no one shall enter this village again------"

"Dullrena!" a guard said as he entered the room. "We have some refugees entering from the south. A few hundred, all from local villages that Fahn has attacked."

Dullrena closed her eyes and rubbed her head, imagining the smiles on the faces of Robin and Liam. "I hate you," she remarked. "I hate you both."

*****

"I should just move my quarters here," Dullrena muttered as she stepped off the elevator once more and took in the new arrivals. She couldn't hide her surprise at just how many there were. There had to be at least three hundred moving into the forest clearing and her scouts said more were coming. "Who is in charge here?" she demanded.

A figure stepped forward, his clothes somewhat rumbled and his hands dirtied. "I am," he said.

Dullrena narrowed her eyes at him. "Hermon," she stated. "Why should I be surprised?"

Hermon crossed his arms and fixed her with a glare. "I'm not happy to see you here either, Dullrena. The last thing I wanted was to bring these people here but yours is the closest we have to sanctuary. You know that. You know what has to be done."

Dullrena rubbed her forehead. "The Granton are here as well. As are Mellroy and his...friends."

"All of them?" Hermon asked with surprise.

"All of them," Dullrena answered. "Much to my regret." Her eyes scanned over the people behind Hermon. They were obviously of the common villages, men, women and children in tattered clothing, many of them apparently in mild shock, other wary at the warriors around them. Dullrena sighed before speaking. "We will find room for you here. Try and make sure that it's out of the way and that you keep to yourselves." Her eyes went cold. "Cross my people and cause trouble...And the sanctuary and protection ends."

Hermon sniffed. "That's what I always liked about you, Dullrena. Your open-minded approach to the situation."

*****

The corner of the village that the Earthlings had managed to get for themselves was relatively high up, a section of huts that were currently vacant. The entire group was gathered near the edge, looking down at the activity below, the sounds of yells carrying upward to them.

"They're gonna kill each other, aren't they?" Lucy said. "And kill us in the process. We could be stuck in the middle of a war!"

Cal sniffed. "I grew up in Cabrini-Green, kid. This ranks as a good day there."

"Not to be insulting, Cal," Maximus said. "But your people cause riots at football games."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Cal shot back. "I guess we should wait to do it until we want to rip apart an empire."

"Point to the American," Elizabeth quipped.

"I wonder if Kahn and Fahn learned how to rule together?" Robin rhetorically asked.

"How?" Liam smirked. "Dictatorship for Dummies?"

"If I didn't know better, I'd swear Fahn was Commodus reincarnated," Maximus remarked.

"That bad?" Liam asked.

Maximus shook his head. "No, actually, Commodus was only half-mad. This man is completely around the bend."

"Speaking of dictators," Nicky said as he turned toward Sean. "You're telling us you saw a swastika on that one guy?"

Sean nodded. "Big as life."

"Are you sure that's what it was?" Maximus pressed.

"Trust me, I'd remember a symbol from the most murderous dictatorship in history," Kim said. "Especially when it's on a guy who was torturing the hell out of me."

"How the hell could someone from Nazi Germany get here?" Nicky demanded.

"It's not that ridiculous," Mel said. "I do believe it's happened before." As everyone turned to stare at him, he sighed. "There have long been theories that some places on Earth have energy connections to other planes, maybe even portals. Portals have to lead to somewhere. Why not here?"

Maximus narrowed his eyes. "Is this just speculation or do you have something more concrete to back it up?"

Mel crossed his arms. "Did you get a good look at the remains of that old ship in Dullrena's temple?"

"Should I have?" Maximus asked.

"If you had, you might have noticed what was on the side of it," Mel answered. "The name*Cyclops.*"

Shirley's eyes widened. "Hold up. The *S.S. Cyclops?* Vanished near the Bermuda Triangle in 1898 without a trace?"

Everyone stared at her.

"I used to subscribe to those Time Life 'Mysteries of the Unknown' series," Shirley explained.

"You ARE a mystery of the unknown," Lucy remarked.

"Oh, please," Elizabeth snorted. "Those things are about as accurate as 'Shakespeare in Love.'"

"Oh, I couldn't believe it when I saw that," Robin said.

"Good to see I'm not the only one!" Elizabeth agreed.

"I know, I mean, it's like the writer was actually there!"

Elizabeth stared at him with surprise. "What?"

"No, really!" Robin said. "He had Viola's costumes, her accent, the staging, the Queen at the performance, all of it perfect!"

"Well, not all," Liam added. "Viola was a redhead."

"True, true."

Cal leaned toward Katie. "Are they joking?"

"I can't tell," she replied.

Marybeth glanced at Mel and frowned. "Aren't you going to go back down there, Mel? Be with your people?"

"Pass," Mel said with a sour look. "I don't want Hermon fawning over me again, telling me it's my destiny to turn into George Washington."

"I'd be thinking more William Wallace..."

"Robbie, ye're mentioning the Scottish..."

"Sorry."

"I just don't want to have to put up with all that again," Mel insisted. "Hey, I can be Different from what destiny says, right?"

Robin and Liam both broke out in laughter.

"What?" Mel asked them. "Are you saying I have no choice in the matter?"

Robin sobered a bit as he looked the young man in the eye. "Here's the deal, Mel. You have choices in life. Everyone does and despite what *some* people," he shot a look at Liam. "Might say, the future is wide open."

"But, occasionally," Liam broke in. "There are some things ye just can't argue with, somethings ye just can't fight. Destiny will give you free rein in life, laddie, but she'll always direct youto where she wants you to go."

Mel was silent for a long moment. "So, I have no choice."

"Not true," Robin said, holding up a finger. "Everyone has a choice when destiny faces them. They can accept it or they can ignore it. The thing of it is, Mel, that choice is vital to you and your future. Not just yours but this planet. So when that choice finally comes, you better make damn sure you know which way you're going to go. Or your destiny is going to be a very, very nasty one."

"Ever with the good word," Mel remarked. He looked down at the ground below and shook his head. "So this is my legacy. Trying to help my people as well as those Granton creatures."

"Who are your people as well," Elizabeth pointed out.

"You want me to accept these people?" Mel demanded.

Maximus fixed him with a hard look. "If you're going to lead these people, you need to treat them as equals. Otherwise, you have no business on the throne."

Mel rolled his eyes. "I don't want this, all right? I don't want to be king!"

"'I just don't want to be king...'" Shirley muttered, humming a few bars, then shaking her head. "Nah, just doesn't have the same ring to it."

A yelling sound came down from below and the group as one looked down to see a scuffle of some sort between a villager and a warrior. "Hell, Rob, we'd better break it up before we get a turf war going here." In the blink of an eye, the two Eternals were gone, leaving the Earthlings alone.

"At the risk of sounding pessimistic," Tarring announced. "I'll be taking confessions if anyone's interested."

"Try not to talk like that, Father," Nicky snapped. He rubbed his head. "I want to get off this planet, I want to get back to Chicago, I want a nice and full long life, I...I want to live long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrow. "Nicky...I'M not going to live that long."

"HEY!" all the Chicago residents yelled.

Mel sighed. "Well, it is starting to look dark around here."

"Relax, it's not that dark," Maximus said. "Kafka directing 'Faust' with a rewrite from Hugo is dark."

The majority of the group stared at him with puzzled expressions. "Great, he's turning into Dennis Miller," Shirley muttered.

Maximus tapped his fingers against the rail and shook his head. "These monks, the rock creatures, the tree warriors, soldiers and civilians..."

"And they're all here to play the Family Feud!" Shirley spoke up.

"God, will you stop that?!" Lucy exploded at the other woman. She glared at Shirley, her annoyance of the last few hours coming to the fore. "All you do is joke and make cracks and stupid comments and sexual entadres! God, can't you take anything seriously?"

There was a long moment of silence as Shirley stared at her, then at all the others, seeing them with similar expressions on their faces, letting her know that, while they wouldn't have put it as bluntly, they felt the same as Lucy did. With a sigh, Shirley's face went serious as she quietly spoke.

"Sherman, set the Way back Machine for 1991. My post-Graduation dance. I'm there, having a good time when a couple of friends, one guy and one girl, suggest we go to my house for some, shall we say, extreme partying. This little offer gets through some conflicting ideas I've been having and makes me realize: I'm bi.

"So, we go back to my house and I'll spare you the details..."

"Thank you," a collective reply went out.

"And in retrospect, doing it right in the living room was probably a bad idea as my parents arrived and things quickly went downhill from that point. They very calmly ordered my gal and guy to get dressed and get home. I simply dressed and waited for the inevitable lecture, wondering if they were going to be bugging me about this all summer."

She paused and wiped at her face, her voice quieter. "My father, a liberal Democrat who contributes quite a lot of money each year to various gay rights causes, kicks me out of the house that evening. He gives me a wad of cash on the basis I never return home. My mother, a woman who loved me greatly and never spoke more than a dozen harsh words to me in my life, tells me that if she had had the slightest idea what sort of person I was going to become, she would not have hesitated to have had an abortion. To ensure they never have to see my face again, a few weeks later, they move to Florida."

She paused and took a deep breath. "I learned something that night. I learned that life is pain and you either let it overwhelm you or you laugh at it. I chose the latter. You may say I don't take

She looked up at them all, a sheen of tears in her eyes. "But when it's my turn for the Grim Reaper to come a-calling, I'm gonna meet him with a smile on my face and a laugh in my throat cause I know the real score. If that makes me nuts, then, fine...I'm nuts."

There was a long silence as everyone absorbed Shirley's confession. "Shirley," quietly intoned. "I wish I could be as insane as you are."

Shirley simply shrugged as she began to walk away. "I'm going hunting. There's gotta be some version of liquor around here that won't poison me."

"I'll go with," Cal announced. "I could use a good drink myself."

"Good, I hate drinking alone," Shirley said as she and Cal walked off. "Singing drunk is much more fun when it's a duet."

The group watched as the two walked away and were silent for a long moment. "Who knows where fancy is bred?" Elizabeth silently asked. "Is it in the heart or in the head?" She shook her head as she began walking away herself. Katie paused, her lips perused before following her.

"Elizabeth?" The doctor turned to face the redheaded woman, put off with her height as were most everyone else. Katie studied her carefully before speaking. "I was just wondering how you were," Katie said. "I know we haven't really had much of a chance to connect during all this and just wanted to talk."

"No offense, Katie, but try to make it quick," Elizabeth said, stifling a yawn. "It's amazing how a trip to another planet can cause a couple of months of lost sleep to catch up with you."

"Well, I just wanted to ask you about Lucy," Katie said. "I've noticed that you've been sort of protective of her."

Elizabeth shrugged. "She's young and Immortal. She needs someone to help break her into that." She smiled. "Plus, there's the fact she reminds me of a woman I used to know in the Carolinas in the 19th century." Elizabeth brushed at her hair and shrugged again. "Maybe in away, I'm taking it as the closest to motherhood I'll ever get. That's one thing I sometimes regret, never having a child. When I wish I could hold a baby in my arms and know it's mine. I do sometimes wish I had that chance."

"No." Elizabeth started and looked over at Katie with surprise. The other woman's face was drawn as if an old pain was coming to her. "You don't want to know what it's like to lose a child, Elizabeth. You never want to know that."

Elizabeth knew that look. She had seen it more times than she could remember, on the faces of the families gathered outside the emergency room and knew what Katie was thinking of. "When?" she softly asked.

Katie bit her lip. "Our first year of marriage," she whispered. "God, Elizabeth, we were so happy, we had it all planned out. The nursery, the crib, clothes, toys, everything." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Then I woke up one morning about a month before I was due and there was blood over my sheets.

"We rushed to the hospital. Emergency C-section. Five hours, Elizabeth. That's how long she lasted. Five hours in a little incubator. I stood by her the whole time. I heard the doctors telling me how I could never have children again but I was barely paying any attention. I was just looking at her and thinking of all the wonderful times we could never have. That's a pain you don't want to go through, Elizabeth. No woman should." Her tears were flowing freely now but Kim was barely paying attention to them. "I just held her once, Elizabeth. Just once."

Elizabeth knew there was nothing she could possibly say at this moment and so kept silent.

"Jamie," Katie whispered, wiping at her eyes. "Her name was Jamie."

Elizabeth slowly reached out and rubbed at Katie's shoulder. "She would have had a wonderful mother," she gently remarked. She stood by, close but not too close as she let Katie handle her own pain in silence.

*****

It was dark in the small room that Kim and Sean occupied. The two were lying side by side on the bed, Sean running a hand through Kim's long hair. They were still dressed as they mulled over their present situation. "You know, we're going to have to get married," Sean finally said.

Kim looked up at him with surprise. "What?"

"Because when people ask just how we got together, we're going to have one hell of a story to tell them," Sean replied in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Kim rolled over and looked her partner in the eye. She took a deep breath before speaking." Sean...do you think we're going to die?"

Sean only paused a minute before shaking his head. "No."

Kim raised an eyebrow. "No?"

"No," Sean said, letting his fingers brush against her cheek. "Because I refuse to believe the universe is so unfair as to wait until I'm about to die to show me the one thing worth living for."

Kim smiled and moved toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him into a long kiss. The two began to pull at their clothing, each deciding to make this night as special as possible.

*****

The pool was set at a far corner of the village, one that was undisturbed at this time of night. Save for its sole occupant who was doing a decent backstroke in the circular enclosure. Nicky stared upward at the canopy of trees overhead, seeing the peeks of the moons above. Aside from the fact there was more than one of them, he could almost believe he was back on Earth, swimming in either Yellowstone or even Colorado.

"How's the water?" Nicky looked up to see Katie standing by the pool, arms crossed and looking over at him.

"Not bad," Nicky answered, paddling a bit. "Come on in and see for yourself."

"I don't think they have suits in my size around here," Katie told her husband.

Nicky smiled. "What makes you think I'm wearing one?"

Katie raised an eyebrow as her hands went to her top. Nicky waded in the water, watching his wife undress, once more admiring how well she had stayed in shape. *God, she's more beautiful now than when we met* he thought as he watched her naked form dive into the pool. She swam quickly toward him, coming before her husband and surfacing. Katie brushed her hair away from her face and smiled at Nicky. "It is good," she remarked. She turned over onto her back, paddling close to her husband. Nicky let his hands drift to her shoulders, rubbing them gently as they were silent.

"So...how are you doing?" Nicky asked.

Katie closed her eyes. "I was thinking about...her." She felt Nicky tense slightly and knew he was feeling that same pain as she had. "It still hurts," she continued.

"I know," Nicky told her. "It does for me too. You know that."

Katie sighed. "Well, it looks like we're going to be seeing her soon."

"Don't talk like that," Nicky barked. "Okay? I don't know what's going to happen but worrying about the worse is not the way to go, Katie. I remember how bad it was for you right after...Jamie. But you got through it. We'll get through this. I know we will."

Katie slowly turned herself over so she could look her husband in the eye. "Have I ever told you how you can make me feel so much better just by talking?"

Nicky brushed a wet lock away from her face as he spoke. "I love you, Katie. I did the first time I saw you. And if the worst does come...At least we're together."

Katie smiled. "I love you too, Nicky. And I feel just the same."

Nicky smiled himself. "You ever wonder how we hooked up so fast?"

Katie wrapped her legs around his waist and moved her mouth to his. "How about you give me a reminder..." she said as she kissed Nicky on the lips. Nicky returned it, wrapping his arms around her in a tight embrace. Their naked bodies pressed together in the water, husband and wife let that strange connection of theirs take over from there.

*****

As someone who had imbued more than her share of exotic drinks, Shirley found Varranliquor to have a sharp and bitter taste that reminded her of a particularly wicked tequila she'd had during a layover in Vegas during her tenure as a flight attendant. She blinked her eyes. "Hmmm, that's good stuff," she gasped out.

"Yeah, does give you a nice buzz," Cal agreed as he took a swig from his own bottle. The two were sitting near the entrance to one of the huts, staring at the village before them and drinking.

Shirley swallowed another mouthful before turning to Cal. "Well, you know what's going to happen, right?"

Cal raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Well, the liquor, combined with the intense danger we're under and the possibility this might be our last night alive, will cause us to get smashed drunk, engaging in a wild night of passionate sex that will leave us waking up tomorrow sore, hung over and probably damaging any future friendship we might have."

Cal was silent for a moment, taking another drink, then shrugged. "Hell, I'm game for it if you are."

"Cool," Shirley said as she drank again.

*****

Maximus' room was quiet, dark and not exactly overflowing with punishment. It suited him well. He had always been more for the simple life, whatever his identity. Occasionally, he'd go for a luxurious home if it suited whatever identity he had at the time but for the most part, he was a man who had little affinity for the finer things in life. Centuries of soldering had taken care of that.

He sat on the bed and bowed his head, rubbing a hand through his short hair. Elizabeth may have felt upset over the pressures of Immortality but two centuries was nothing compared to two thousand years. And yet, oddly, right now, with all the pressure of the situation upon him, all Maximus could think about was the one person he had met in all that time that truly hung to his heart.

"I don't like that look," a soft female voice said in flawless ancient Spanish. "It's the one you got whenever you returned home from the wars. The one that let me know there was something eating you inside. I always wanted you to open up. Now...Now I know why you didn't."

For one of the few times in his long life, Maximus Decimus Meridas was completely dumbstruck. He slowly turned his head and stared at the woman sitting next to him. She was quite beautiful with long dark hair and olive-colored eyes, a gentle smile on her face. Her thin form was clad in a white robe of old Roman design, one shoulder bare and her hair brushing past it.

Maximus slowly worked his jaw up and down before choking out a name. "Alina?"

His wife gave him that smile that had made him fall in love with her nearly two millennia before. "Let's just say you know a couple of crazy fairies with romantic streaks and some rather interesting connections," she told him.

Maximus shook his head, still not believing this. "How...why..."

"I...Frankly, it's been something I've wanted to do for a while," Alina told him, growing serious. "For starters...About our son..."

"No."

Alina seemed surprised by his reaction. "What?"

Maximus took a breath, surprising himself by how fast he was getting used to the idea of talking to the ghost of his late wife. "I came to grips a long time ago with how the fact that I could not have children. Which meant that I could not be the natural father to our son." He looked up at his wife who couldn't keep a guilty look off her face. Carefully, he placed his hand in hers, taken by the warmth coming from her body. "I know it must have been lonely for you, with me away for years at a time. I understand a moment of weakness."

"You were faithful to me," Alina softly said. "And I..."

"Gave me a son," Maximus told her. "I cannot fault you for that in any way." He looked down. "Especially seeing as how you died because of me."

"No, because of Commodus," Alina broke in. "Not you. He made that decision and his soldiers carried it out. You did all you could to keep us safe, Maximus. I can't blame you for that. I never have."

Maximus closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "There are days I wish with all my heart that I had died that day. For certain." He looked back at her. "So I could be with you."

Alina let a hand brush against his face. "That will come." She smiled. "But not yet."

Maximus managed to chuckle. "You've been talking to Juba, haven't you?"

"There are quite a few people up here waiting for you," Alina told him. She squeezed his hand. "But you have a destiny in this life still. One that will allow you to save more lives than you could ever imagine. I know that. And I am proud of you for it."

Maximus looked her dead in the eye. "I love you," he whispered. "I always have."

"I know," Alina replied. "And I still love you. Always remember that, no matter what else."

Maximus stroked her hair before speaking. "How long can you...?"

Alina smiled and leaned her head forward. "Long enough to show you that there are somethings spirits are capable of that few would believe." With that, she kissed him full on the lips. He closed his eyes and returned it as they sank onto the couch and for the first time in far too long awhile, Maximus Decimus Meridas let himself go and be content.

*****

Lucy pulled her blade up and made a careful stance with her feet. She thrust the sword forward and went into one of the exercises Maximus had been teaching her. She was more than a little unsettled by how fast she was getting used to being trained how to kill. As much as Elizabeth was being sympathetic, she just couldn't understand how important being a doctor was to Lucy. It had been something she'd been working for her whole life, to save lives and now she was being taught how to take them. It was weighing on Lucy more than she let on and was giving her more of an edge than she was used to.

"You should hold it a bit higher," Mel said as he came up toward her. "You'll get better balance that way."

"I would if I could," Lucy sighed, lowering the sword and rubbing at her wrist. "This thing's heavier than it looks."

"I know all about that," Mel muttered. He rubbed at his forehead. "I've been walking around this place and seeing all these people looking at me and worshiping me like I'm...I'm..."

"Royalty?" Lucy asked with a light smile.

Mel shook his head. "No. Like I'm some savior or something."

"They think you are," Lucy said. "You heard them. They've been waiting for you to return."

"Yeah, well, the wait's been for nothing," Mel sighed. "I'm telling Maximus, the first thing we do tomorrow is find a way to get into the city, find out how Fahn did the teleportation thing, and get us all back to Earth."

"Wait a minute," Lucy said with a frown. "What about Fahn? What about the planet?"

"It's his planet and he's welcome to it," Mel said. "This is too big, Lucy. I can't lead a revolution, let alone a world. It's not for me."

"You're right, it's not," Lucy said. "It's for your people. It's for your home."

"Earth is my home, Lucy. Chicago is my home. This..." Mel shook his head. "I can't do it. I just can't."

Lucy placed the tip of her sword into the ground as she fixed Mel with a glare. "These people believe in you, Mel," she softly said. "That monk believes in you. Eril believes in you. Hell, I believe in you." She snorted. "It's a damn shame you don't believe in yourself."

Mel stared back at her for a long moment before turning and walking away. Lucy watched him go and bit her lip.

"Nice," a sardonic voice came from behind her. "Very After-school Special."

Lucy sighed and turned around to see Marybeth staring at her. "Marybeth, what is your problem?"

"You," the high schooler remarked. "And the way you're throwing yourself at him, trying to get close to him..."

"Oh, look who's talking!" Lucy snorted. "God, could you be more obvious about your little crush on him?"

"At least I know him," Marybeth said. "Which is more than you can say." She narrowed her eyes at Lucy as she took a step closer. "I've been pushed around by people like you longer than I care to remember, Lucy. People who think they deserve it all, just because of who they are."

"Who I am is a doctor," Lucy barked back. "A doctor who died and discovered she has to kill to survive. Trust me, Marybeth, romance is not what I have in mind." She returned the other girls' glare. "And can I say that this attitude of yours is starting to get irritating? So you got held down, big deal! Happens to everyone at one point or another and dwelling on it is not going to help either of us."

Marybeth sniffed. "You think just because you're older and prettier, you can have anyone you want. Well, not this time."

"First off, I don't want him that bad," Lucy fired back. "Second, I'm not that old. And third, my high school life wasn't exactly peaches either. You don't have to be small to be bullied, Marybeth, trust me."

"Just...stay away from Mel, okay?"

"Make me," Lucy smirked. She began to march forward only to be pulled back by Marybeth."We're not through here," the teenager said.

"Let go of the arm," Lucy told her in a hard voice.

"Make me," Marybeth said, mocking Lucy's earlier tone. She was more than slightly surprised when Lucy gripped her arm and tried to pull it off. Marybeth laced out a hand and hit Lucy upside the head. Lucy yelled and then returned the favor with a smack of her own. Marybeth shoved Lucy and Lucy shoved back. Marybeth held her middle finger to her thumb, then flicked it onto Lucy's forehead. Lucy yelled then flicked Marybeth back. After yelling herself, Marybeth rushed forward and tackled Lucy, the two going flying back and into a rather sizeable patch of mud nearby. They fell onto it, gasping for breath, mud flying over their clothes. Marybeth grabbed a handful and threw it right in Lucy's face. Lucy wiped the mud away with one hand while she used the other to rub some mud in Marybeth's hair, causing another scream.

"What the hell is this?!"

The two stopped and turned to see Mel standing before them, his hands on his hips and an expression of disbelief on his face as he looked at the two. "You know," he began. "I came back to try to explain why I thought going back would be best for all of us. But after seeing you two, I'm thinking that I really don't need to justify myself."

He shook his head. "You think I haven't seen the looks? The silent glares? The tension between you two? As ego-damaging as it may sound, I can't believe I've managed to spark some sort of rivalry between you two for me. So let me make this clear right now."

He turned toward Marybeth, his expression softening. "Marybeth...You're a great girl. You're a brilliant young woman, you've got a lot going for you and you're going to make some guy really happy some day. But I'm not him. I like you, I do. But not in that way. I'd like to consider you a friend...well, if you weren't acting quite like this."

He turned to Lucy. "Lucy, you're a smart woman too and to handle all this means you're a hell of a lot stronger than you look. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little attraction to you because of all that. But, frankly, I'm not exactly looking for a relationship here. I've got just a few other things on my mind."

He straightened and glared at the two. "You know, considering that we may not live long enough to get off this planet, I'd be thinking of slightly better ways to spend our time. Just my opinion." He turned on his heel and marched away as Lucy and Marybeth watched him go. The two then looked carefully at one another, Lucy biting her lip as Marybeth wiped a bit of mud off her glasses.

"So..." Marybeth finally said. "Which one of us is Joan Collins and which one of us is Heather Locklear?"

The two stared at each other and then both started to laugh. Within minutes, they were snorting and shaking with laughter, Marybeth removing her glasses so she could wipe at her eyes. "Oh, God...Look at us! Two women on an alien planet and we're fighting for a guy who could be king."

Lucy chuckled. "Is stupid when you think about it, huh?"

"Yeah, it is at that," Marybeth agreed. She paused and looked at Lucy, sobering as she did. "Um, now that I've cooled off, literally...Maybe I was out of line."

"You've been scared," Lucy said. "Same as me."

"Yeah, but you can't die," Marybeth pointed out.

"Which just makes it all the scarier, trust me," Lucy answered.

"The girl learns." Marybeth and Lucy turned to see Elizabeth walking up to them.

"How long have you been there?" Lucy asked as the two young women got to their feet.

"Oh, long enough to see the little mud bath," the Immortal said as she calmly walked forward. "And to see you two finally get over this childish bickering."

"Oh, thanks for the note on maturity, Moll," Marybeth remarked and Lucy couldn't help giggling at the scowl on Corday's face at that.

The scowl vanished as Elizabeth managed a smile. "Come on. How about you two find someplace to clean up and do something you should have done a while ago. Talk to each other."

"Lead on, your ladyship," Lucy said as she and Marybeth followed Elizabeth, leaving muddy footprints in their wake.

*****

Tarring wasn't sure if he was breaking some sort of rule by being in the main temple of the village. It was a house of worship, albeit one that no one on Earth would have counted. The priest hoped God wouldn't make such distinctions for one of his servants. He knelt, his fingers flickering over his crucifix as he prayed under his breath, hoping his prayers for the safety of the others would be heard.

"May I join you?" Tarring looked up to see one of the monks coming toward him.

"As you wish," the priest said as he moved aside. The monk knelt on the ground, touching his hands to his forehead and bowing toward the ground. Tarring observed this and, hoping he wasn't interrupting anything, spoke. "It's nice to meet another holy man."

"Well..." the monk softly said. "I wasn't always that holy."

"Yes, I can relate," Tarring replied. "The violence, the guilt over what you've done, wondering if you'll ever be able to make up for your past..."

"Hoping you'll be worthy in His eyes," the monk stated. "That you can make it work for you and when your time comes before Him, his judgement won't be too harsh."

The two looked at each other and both sadly smiled. "You too, eh?" they said in unison. Tarring held out a hand. "Bernard Tarring."

"Ujaki," the monk replied as he took the hand and shook it with a strong grip. "I know this must be difficult for you."

"It's had its moments," Tarring admitted. "But no one ever said the path to forgiveness would be easy."

"Very true," Ujaki stated. "I had once hoped I would be able to serve our people in the army. Now...Now I hope I can do the same from this end."

"It's a hard road," Tarring said. "But one worth following."

"Especially now that the heir has returned," Ujaki said.

"Oh, please, don't *you* start," Mel groaned from the back of the temple. The two holy men turned to face him, seeing the young man shake his head. "If I have to put up with one more person telling me I'm some sort of savior..."

"You don't understand what you are." Ujaki said. "You're what this planet has been waiting for, my Lord------"

"Don't call me that," Mel hissed. "Please, don't call me that. I'm not your lord, I'm not a ruler."

"Yes, you are," Ujaki said. "You may not be able to see it but that's what you are, underneath it all. It's part of your family, your heritage, it's in your blood. You can't let go of it." He paused. "And, deep down, I don't think you want to."

Mel looked upward. "Why me? Why do I have to deal with this?"

"The Lord works in mysterious ways, Mel," Tarring stated.

"No offense, Father, but please don't bring your God into this," Mel said.

"Fine," Tarring agreed. "Why not bring yours?" As Mel stared at him quizzically, the priest continued. "From what Robin and Liam have said, there are many Gods throughout the universe, Mel and that includes whatever one is worshiped here. So pray to him. Ask him for counsel, for strength, for the wisdom to make the right choice."

Mel appeared skeptical at the priest's assertion. "You think he'll answer me?"

"It's a thought," Tarring said. "Ten years ago, I was giving up on life and I prayed to him. It gave me the strength to enter the priesthood, to help others, to erase my own sin. Just open up with your faith, Mel. No matter what it is."

Mel was quiet for a long moment as he studied the priest. "Thanks, Father," he softly said.

"For the advice?" Tarring asked.

"No," Mel said. "For not going on about how your God is the only God."

Tarring smiled. "Well, I do believe that I've been given a unique perspective on the situation even the Vatican could not attest to." He turned back and knelt down, Ujaki joining him and Mel decided it was time to leave them to their own ways.

Mel stepped into his small room and froze, staring at the figure within. "What the hell do you want?"

Eril was straight-faced as he returned Mel's gaze. "A long time ago, I found something. Something that I should have destroyed at the time. Especially since I doubted the one it was meant for would ever come." He paused before placing a small cube-sized device on the bed. "This is for you," he stated. "And I believe for you alone." He seemed ready to say something else but instead simply walked out.

Mel watched him go, then turned back to the bed. He walked forward, staring at the device for a long moment before kneeling down. He pressed on the button on the top of the device and waited for something to happen.

A beam shot out of the cube and formed an image before Mel. It was of a heavyset man with a lined and bearded face wearing a dark green robe and a crown on his dark hair. Mel knew who it was of course. He'd seen this holographic image before, a long time ago. "Hi, Dad," he sardonically remarked. "Let's see how you're gonna screw up my life now."

The image spoke with a deep voice that was kinder and warmer than the holograms of pure information Mel had seen before. "Melroy," it said. "If you're seeing this, then you've returned to Varra, as I've hoped. I'm sure you know all about the world by now and what has to be done to defeat Fahn. I'm hoping you've gotten yourself allies, maybe even an army that can help you."

"Oh, sure," Mel muttered. "First army ever that can be fit into a single van."

The image continued. "And I hope you have better luck with them than I did. I know some of my people helped Fahn with his rise to power and his takeover. I don't know who and I suppose it doesn't matter to me right now. But I urge you be cautious in who you trust." The image paused and his expression softened. "I don't know how old you'll be when you see this. I don't know what you might have gone through wherever you have been. What kind of life you've had, what kind of person you are now. But there are some things I needed to say to you.

"I never wanted this for you. I didn't want to have to put you in this position, of having to free your own home world. As I said, I don't know what has happened to you but there are something I'm sure of. I know that you are still royalty. It is in your blood to lead, you cannot deny that."

"Watch me," Mel snapped.

"This is your world," his father went on. "And I truly hope you do what is needed. But if you do not...Or if you choose not to...I shall understand."

Mel was surprised as the image continued. "You are a man now, Mel. It is your choice what to do with your life. I will admit, I hope and pray that you do what I would like, to free your people and rule them wisely. But if you do not...Then I shall understand. And it will not change how I feel."

A tear went down the man's cheek as he tried to keep his voice steady. "I love you, son. I hope that you've never doubted that. I love you and I am truly sorry I had to rob you of a life with your father more than anything else. Believe me when I say I would rather give up my throne, my crown and all else just to be able to raise you and see you grow. But the fates had other plans for us.

"If you choose to lead...You will win. I know this. I do not doubt you or your abilities for one instant. Know that. Remember that. I am proud of you and I love you no matter what, Melroy. I hope...I pray...That you can still respect me for what I've done to you. I will be watching from somewhere. And know that I believe in you. I hope you can do the same."

The image winked out and Mel sat on the bed, staring at the spot where it had been, tears streaming down his cheeks as he found his mind taking a few new turns...

*****

Part fourteen: In which revelations are made and backup plans initiated.

Backyard of Steve St. Wolf's Home
Sunnydale, CA
May 25th, 1999
2351 Hours PST

In an instant, Steve's gun had cleared the holster and aimed at Roz. Steve immediately began pulling the trigger, unleashing rounds right at Roz. There were several small flashes as the bullets impacted on the force shield Roz had around her, the alien simply raising her eyebrow as the projectiles disintegrated. "Okay, I'm standing behind a force field designed to protect me from forces that are going to end all life on your world and you think a pistol is going to going to do anything?" She rolled her eyes. "How the Goa'uld haven't wiped you out years ago, I'll never know."

The transformation Roz had taken was nothing short of astounding. Gone was the withdrawn woman with a shy smile and a gentle voice. In her place was an arrogant woman who appeared suddenly older and held an evil smirk on her face.

"Oh, and by the way, Giles," she stated. "Thank you so much for letting me get a look at the library. All those arcane texts gave me a good idea of how to readjust the shield to stand up to whatever you throw against me."

"Anyone else getting the feeling we've been betting on the wrong horse?" Xander announced with a gulp.

"Jurden, does it feel good to get rid of that 'poor little me' image!" Roz yelled, throwing her arms up in triumph. "No more of this 'damsel in distress' shit, no more acting like you people mean a damn to me, just good old-fashioned mayhem."

"I could not agree with you more," Shaw hissed.

Roz laughed and wagged a finger at the group. "I gotta tell you, I thought it was going to be a lot harder to fool you all. I mean, I had the crystal but I still hedged my bets. I was going to take some retuazi to slow my pulse in case you did lie detector, subconscious blocks in case you tried a mind-scan, the works. But all I needed was this one little crystal and my word." She laughed. "Radilon's Ghost, you people raise naivete to an art form."

"When we beat her, let's send her to Mulder and Scully," Larry remarked.

"You..." Kendra said in realization. "You are the true enemy."

"Wow, dat really good tinking, mon!" Roz said in a sarcastic Jamaican accent. She shook her head and shifted to her real one. "Sheesh, no wonder your parents didn't want anything to do with you. Oh, and Faith, I have to say, I wasn't lying when I told you a bit ago that I couldn't understand why your stepdad went after you." She gave the brunette Slayer a dark look. "Why he'd even waste the time to try and get a piece of shit like you is beyond me."

As Faith stared in shock, Roz turned toward Shaw. "Oh, and Shaw. Hate to have you die a virgin but let's face, you were never going to get a decent fuck going around with that stupid attitude." She pouted and began a mocking imitation of Shaw. "Oh, woe is me! I'm from another dimension! My grandparents are dead! Vamps carved up my back! Oooohhh!" She snorted. "Can I just say the whole no contractions thing is very, very, very annoying?"

Shaw's eyes flashed with shock and anger and she fought to keep her voice from trembling. "I...I thought we were on our way to becoming friends."

Roz threw her head back and cackled loudly at that. "Friends? Oh, come on! I'm a genius who's got the power of life and death. You and your race can't hold a candle to me. Jurden, you haven't even been laid once, what the hell do you know about life?" Her eyes narrowed as her grin grew. "I've seen and done more than you can imagine and loved it. Your race is nothing to me, your home is nothing to me, you are nothing to me, people are nothing to me but things to give me amusement. And seeing you believe that you deserve to breathe the same air as me has provided me with more amusement than I've had in a long time. So thank you very, very much, you worthless little piece of drider shit."

As the color drained from Shaw's face, Faith's own expression tightened in anger. "You are so going down, you psycho bitch."

"Better psycho than slut, I say," Roz jovially stated.

"You bitch," Cordelia insulted.

"Hey, I may be a psychotic, sociopathic, amoral mass murderer. But at least I'm not a wanton slut who'll dump dickbrain there the minute something better comes along."

"Hey, there is nothing better for her!" Xander interjected.

Roz looked at Cordelia. "Actually, a new nose would be good for her. Maybe I can help her corpse with that."

"What are you..." Willow swallowed. "What are you doing?"

"I'm killing your entire planet," Roz said as if the answer should have been obvious. "Try to keep up with the rest of the class, will you?"

"Why?" Willow demanded.

"Because it's what she does," Zev stated in a flat tone. "It's what she wants, all she wants, the one thing that gives her joy. It's what she did to our world. It's what she's done to 25 other planets. It's what she's going to do now."

Giles stared in shock at Roz. "You...destroyed your own planet?" he choked, barely able to handle the very concept. "Why? Why would you destroy your own world?"

Roz shrugged. "I was bored that day."

Giles stared at her, her face showing that she honestly did not care one bit about the genocide of her own people. "You're insane."

"You just figured that out? And you call yourself a Watcher." Roz shook her head as she looked over at Jenny. "I can tell why you two get along so well. Who else would want either of you idiots?" She chuckled. "And you wonder why your clan kicked you out."

Roz quickly glanced at her watch. "Ah, still have some gloating time," she jovially announced, looking back up at the group. "Oh, sure, I could give you a few minutes to make peace with your god, but hey, why waste that when you can hear more from me?" She let out a long laugh. "Oh, I can't tell you how richly satisfying this feels right now! It's been so long since I met a species that was worth killing."

"Then..." Jenny whispered, piecing it all together. "The whole time...You were setting us up."

"Gotcha," Roz said with a wink. "I have to admit, I was surprised it took less time than I thought to find the right spot for energy, something to focus the crystal on and draw the energy needed to get this baby going. This Hellmouth of yours gave me the right source but I needed a little boost to get the whole thing going..."

"Which we gave you," Jenny said in a hollow voice.

"Hence the term, evil genius," Roz stated with a grin. "If I was sane, I wouldn't be so brilliant."

"Then you're coming here was all part of your plan," Willow said in shocked understanding. "Getting in with us, getting us to trust you, getting us to power you up..."

"And then getting us to ambush Zev for you," Buffy stated, gritting her teeth. "You were using us to get rid of the only guy who could stop you."

"My, the pennies are dropping all around, aren't they?" Roz snickered. "I'll admit that learning Zev was out with your mom was a surprise even to me but I managed to work it into my scenario very well. If there's one thing I love more than massive destruction, it's seeing dear old bro get the shit kicked out of him. So, knock you off-balance to drop the shield and viola, instant satisfaction. Having you all beat on him and not knowing he was the good guy? Now THAT'S entertainment!" She laughed again, that mad laugh that made the situation all the worse.

"You used me," Shaw hissed. "You made me look like a fool!"

"Actually, no, your parents beat me to that one," Roz said. "I just gave you an audience."

"What do you want?" Steve hissed.

Roz sighed. "Come on, pick up the pace here!" She pointed at the crystal, which was starting to glow quite brightly. "I found that thing during a random search in the asteroid belt near my planet. Not sure exactly where it came from or what it is but it's got some serious power inside it. Enough power to wipe out a planet, for example. Now me, I'm okay since the eye of the storm is actually the safest place to be when that baby goes off. All of you, however? You're screwed."

"You can't do this," Willow whispered, trying her best not to sound pleading and not quite succeeding.

"Oh, kikey, it's done," Roz mockingly told her. "But look on the bright side. You won't go down in history as the people responsible for the destruction of your own planet. Because there's not going to be anyone around to record it."

"We trusted you," Steve hissed.

"Trust is a commodity, my friend. And like every commodity, it exists solely to be bought and sold. Didn't you go to economics class?"

"You don't have any right to----" Steve started.

"Right?" Roz sneered. "Listen, asshole, I'm more important than anyone else in this damn galaxy. I can do what I want, when I want and there's nothing you can do to stop it."

"Excuse me." Everyone turned around and Roz looked over them to where Joyce was standing in the rear. She had been silent through all this, her face appearing surprisingly calm as she held up a hand. "Ah, I'm just trying to clarify something here. You said that you found that crystal yourself?"

"Yeah," Roz said, not sure why Joyce was bothering to ask. "And then I did a little fine- tuning, got to channel its power into the device I had already been building on the side and bang, instant world destroyer."

Joyce slowly nodded. "So...If I have this straight...That crystal is really what makes the whole thing go?"

"Yeah," Roz said, feeling just the tiny bit uncertain.

Joyce nodded again. "So...If I can ask...Just how effective do you think this device is going to be with a cheap piece of glass jewelry from my $2.99 bin with a little paint on it?"

A very long silence went over the yard as everyone absorbed what Joyce was saying. Roz stared at her in utter befuddlement, obviously not able to take what Joyce was telling her. Her attention was caught by a loud beeping on the control console beside her. Her eyes flew toward it, taking in a flashing red light and the warning sensors. Her head whipped around toward the crystal, which was starting to glow even brighter. As Roz's eyes widened, the crystal suddenly shattered, hurling pieces inside the force field, Roz ducking to avoid them. With a long and loud groan, the machine seemed to settle down, the beam cutting off and several of the lights fading.

Roz stared at it for a long moment, then turned and gaped at Joyce. The woman simply smiled. "You should see the look on your face."

Swallowing, Roz tried to compose herself and spoke calmly. "Well...You realize, of course, you've just blown a perfectly good plan, if I can ask, HOW DID YOU KNOW?!"

"If there's something I just learned in the last five minutes," Joyce calmly replied. "It's that you don't waste time boasting about how smart you are."

Roz let her gaze travel over the other Slayerettes, seeing the various looks of betrayal, anger and blood in their expressions. Her eyes glanced at the console, seeing the warning that her force field wasn't going to last much longer. Swallowing, she forced herself to smile. "Well...This is a little wrinkle. But, I should be able to smooth it over tomorrow night. Until then..."

Her hand flew to the console and pressed down on one button, her eyes closing as she did. A bright flash erupted from the machine, a bright light that instantly blinded the team. It was especially hard for Shaw and Oz, the two covering their eyes as they tried to cope with the blinding light.

It took a couple of minutes for their eyes to clear and the group stared at the blank space where Roz and the device had been. Both had vanished into thin air, leaving only an indention in the grass. "Copperfield should hope to work that fast," Xander muttered.

"Dammit!" Zev yelled, kicking at a piece of grass before him. "She got away. Again, she got away!"

"I...I still can't believe this!" Willow gasped. "She...She used us! She screwed us!"

"Screwed us worse than Bret Hart in Montreal," Larry agreed.

"I was thinking more of Terra and the Teen Titans," Xander added.

"Don't feel too bad," Zev sighed. "She's fooled people older and smarter than you."

"Thanks, I----Hey!" Buffy yelled.

Steve rubbed his head, trying to calm the anger inside him so he could concentrate on what had to be done. "All right, everyone inside. We need to plan."

"Oh, yes, you people have certainly showed your excellence in that regard," Zev sardonically remarked. His attention was caught by a loud gasp as Randi came back to life. She sat up, feeling at her throat, the cuts healing but a bit of red mark still visible.

"Oh, God," she muttered. She glanced about, seeing the missing platform, then turned to the group. "What'd I miss?"

"Oh, not much," Buffy informed her. "Roz is a pyscho, she wanted to destroy our world, Mom managed to outwit her and it sounds like Zev's a good guy."

"Excuse me," Zev piped up, staring at Randi in confusion. "Weren't you just dead a moment ago?"

"Yeah," Randi said as she rose to her feet.

Zev frowned. "Now, I know there are differences between our cultures, but in the majority of ones I've come across, when a person dies, it usually precludes their coming back any time soon."

"It's...a long story," Randi sighed.

"She, Buffy and Steve are Immortal and can come back from the dead," Larry spoke up.

"Not that long..."

*****

"All right," Steve said as everyone gathered in the living room. "We need to find Roz and find her now. Jenny, Shaw, Amy, Willow, start putting together some spells to search for her and------"

"Feel free to waste your time," Zev announced. He was standing with his back to the group, staring out the window. "You won't find her."

Jenny glared at him. "Don't underestimate our skills."

"You've already underestimated my sister," the alien pointed out. "She's insane but she's no fool. Even when she's supremely confident, she still has a back-up plan in place. She already told you she had seen your books on magic, seen what you can do. You think it will be that difficult for her to develop a screen that will keep her hidden from whatever magics you come up with?"

The group was silent as Giles peered at Zev. "You know about magic?"

Zev sniffed. "You think it only exists on this world? I've seen plenty of planets with more magical power than you could possibly come up with."

"You'd be surprised," Buffy snapped.

Xander looked at Shaw. "Well, I guess Roz blows your theory to hell, Shaw."

"Which one was that?" Shaw tightly asked.

"The one you told Drusilla when she and Spike went undercover," Xander explained. "That it's easier for a sane person to act crazy than a crazy person to act sane."

"Every theory has its exceptions."

"I'm still confused," Cordelia said.

"Of course you are, it's your natural state," Zev remarked. He sighed. "Well, if there's one thing I've learned about this species, it's that you need to have everything spelled out in capital letters before you can understand it." He crossed his arms and glared at the group. "My sister was never the most...stable of people. But even I never knew how far gone she truly was. Not until she first used that device to destroy our planet. Our people. Our history. All because she felt like it." He grit his teeth. "I survived. A civilization of nearly four billion beings and I alone survived. I immediately made it my mission to find her and stop her, to ensure she didn't do it to any other world. It's what I've been doing for decades."

"Decades?" Amy frowned. "Just how old are you?"

"In your terms?" Zev bent his head and did some quick calculations. "Roughly...289 of your years. My species has a relative life expectancy of 500-700 years."

Everyone stared at him before Buffy rolled her eyes. "Great," she muttered. "Just great. Mom would have to pick a guy who'll live as long as her."

"Wow, Mrs. S. Guess you can't complain to Buffy about how much older Steve is, huh?"

"FAITH!"

"Now wait a minute," Amy piped in. "How could you be following Roz like this? Is the portal connection so strong?"

Zev stared at her. "Portal connection?" he asked. "Jurden, what pile of terahau droppings did she sell you people? She has a spaceship, you twit. Somewhere in orbit around your moon, with a teleporter ready to pick her up when the wave began so she could move on. I've followed her the best I could but when I tried to land in cloak on your surface, I hit one of the frankly superfluous number of satellites roaming around your world."

"So that's why MTV went down the other week!" Xander said.

"Aw, I missed the big spring preview on 'House of Style!'" Cordelia moaned.

Zev stared at them, then at the group. "I'd save time by ignoring them, wouldn't I?"

"So, where's your spaceship?" Oz asked.

Zev sighed. "Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. I managed to salvage a portable computer and some supplies. Fortunately, my race is capable of instant memorization and we use far more brain power than you do. My computer gave me a downloaded crash course of Earth languages, history, customs, enough for me to fit in. From there, it was a simple task of finding out where Roz was going. She needed a major source of power and I found indications that there was one here."

"The Hellmouth," Jenny stated.

"Yep, that's us, the popular spot," Xander said.

Zev rolled his eyes. "Jurden help this town."

"Quite literally in this case," Giles remarked.

"Whatever," Zev shrugged. "I tracked her down and was hoping to finally bring her down when you people interfered."

"Hey, scuse us!" Cordelia snapped. She pointed a finger at Zev. "You know, we still don't have anything in the line of proof that you're on the level either! How do we know you don't want to kill us too? How do we know we can trust you, what in the hell makes you think that you can-----"

"Hell?" Zev's face tightened as he glared at the Amazon. "You talk to me about Hell? You think you know what Hell is, little girl?"

His right hand moved to his left wrist, where what appeared to be a somewhat large digital watch lay. Zev's finger pressed against the side and a tiny metal ball shot out the side of the watch. As the humans watched in amazement, the ball grew in size until it was a solid metal ball roughly the size of a softball.

"Let me show you what Hell is," Zev hissed as his hand clutched around the ball. "Mine." He squeezed it, it glowed a bright gray...

And the minds of the team were assailed with images. It wasn't like watching a movie or seeing a data screen, they could feel, smell and hear everything around them. And that was what made just what they felt all the more horrific.

*****

*Reudia, where the shockwave took out the capital tower before anyone knew what was happening. The majority of the people who died had been in the midst of prayers or celebrations, dancing one moment, incinerated corpses the next, a wall of fire covering the world until only one figure was left...*

*****

*Dareau, where the oceans boiled into steam, raising the temperatures of the planet a thousand degrees in minutes, literally cooking the populace alive...*

*****

*Qerator, whose moon exploded into pieces, sending a cascade of debris down upon the planet. Buildings were crushed, the tides rose and drowned hundreds of miles of land and the shockwaves leveled whole cities...*

*****

*Bitu Four, where the solar ring surrounding the planet was ignited, setting off the clouds of gasses and turning the entire world into a fireball in minutes...*

*****

*Iosis, where the shockwave of the device knocked the planet off its axis, shifting its poles and condemning the millions who survived the cataclysm to a slow, cold death by freezing...*

*****

*Laugtor, where the protective atmospheres were systematically peeled apart, one by one. In waves, radioactive rays cooked the earth, magnetic pulses shocked the land masses and finally, the air itself was stolen away, leaving those alive to gasp in a vacuum...*

*****

And more. Many more. Dozens of alien races, all different in appearance and history but sharing similar fates. Families crying together, awaiting the end. Prayers for salvation that was not to come. Curses against whoever was responsible. Pleadings for mercy from a being that had none. And above it all, the laughter. The cold, mocking laughter of Roz as she took utter and complete pleasure in the horror she was unleashing...

*****

The image faded as Zev released the globe. It shrank back down and reentered his watch. His face was set as he looked over the group. "Twenty-six worlds," he intoned. "Twenty-six cultures. Untold billions of sentient beings, not to mention the countless smaller life-forms. This is why I hunt her. Not for me. For them."

There was silence in the room as the group absorbed what they had just experienced. Several of the girls had tears in their eyes as Xander and Larry tried to hold in their lunches. Even Oz seemed stunned by what he had seen.

"How?" Willow whispered, wiping at her eyes. "How can anyone do...that?"

"I've been across more galaxies than I can name," Zev softly said. "And I can't answer that."

"She was going to kill us," Jenny said, still not able to believe this. "She was going to kill us and everyone on Earth and we didn't even see it."

"Except for Joyce," Steve noted as he turned toward the elder Summers.

"Yes, I didn't get the chance to ask before," Zev said, peering at Joyce. "How did you know?"

As everyone turned toward her, Joyce took a breath. She tapped her toe on the floor as she spoke. "From the minute I heard Roz's story...something about it just didn't seem right. There were too many holes, too many things that didn't make as much sense as they should have."

"Well, she told it to us," Buffy stated. "And we didn't see them thanks to that ring of hers."

"True," Joyce noted. "But I spent some time with Zev beforehand. I talked to him, I listened to him, I think I got to know him a little. And I just couldn't believe I had spent a dinner with a mass murderer and hadn't even known it."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Buffy couldn't help muttering under her breath.

Joyce gave no indication she had heard as she continued. "That little suspicion grew more and more as I listened to Roz talk. I just felt something was wrong. The fact that all of you weren't even questioning her at all just made that suspicion grow. But what sold it for me was when I heard her and Zev talking."

"What did that do?" Zev asked with a frown. "It's not like either of us said anything incriminating."

"No, but it was the attitudes," Joyce said. "You were defeated, yes, but not angry. I've met a couple of would-be world conquerors and they usually can't shut up. Plus, there was some despair there and sadness, not to yourself but to me. Roz wasn't like that. She wasn't just victorious, she was really rubbing it in that she had you beat, she was cocky and taking too much pleasure at seeing you where you were."

Joyce shrugged. "So, I flipped things over. I asked myself what if Roz was the villain and you were the good guys and suddenly a lot of things made a lot more sense."

"And so you did a little switch," Zev said with admiration. "You outwitted my sister, that is a very impressive achievement."

"She's still thinking like a teenager," Buffy observed.

Shaw raised an eyebrow. "I thought you would like the fact that she learned something from the switch," she dryly said.

"Rub it in, Hunter." Frowning, Buffy tried to assert herself. "Okay. So we know who's who and who's nuts and whatnot. So, now what?"

"Now, I find her and I kill her," Zev said. "It's simple and straightforward, which means even you people should be able to accept it."

"Hey, we don't just kill people in cold blood!" Larry protested.

"If circumstances call for it..." Shaw muttered under her breath, drawing a concerned glance from Faith.

"Finding Roz is a priority," Steve said. "There's no telling what sort of chaos she might cause, even without the crystal."

"Where is it, anyway?" Jenny asked.

"Oh, I gave it to Ulric," Joyce said. "It should be at his home. He was going to be spending some more time with Garrow and I figured it was out of the way enough for Roz-----"

"Garrow?" Zev's eyes widened as he stared with shock at Joyce. "Garrow is there?"

"Yes," Joyce confirmed, not understanding why Zev was so concerned. "He should still be there-----"

"You let Garrow get in close?" Zev demanded.

"Oh, man, that's right," Faith said. "Roz must have conned him too."

"Radilon's Ghost, are you people BLIND?!" Zev yelled, his face agitated. "Garrow and Roz are working together!"

"What?" a shocked Shaw asked. "But...but he's a priest!"

Zev threw up his hands. "Great Jurden, how gullible can one species be?!"

*****

Ulric Johannsen's Home
May 26th, 1999
0023 Hours PST

Garrow checked the clock on the mantle for the tenth time in the last two minutes, his frown deepening. "Are you all right?" Ulric asked his fellow priest. "You were so calm before but you've been getting more tense the last few minutes."

Garrow looked at him, making a small smile. "Sorry," he said. "I was expecting...something right about now but I guess it's running a bit late."

Ulric shook his head. "Always one for punctuality, Conrad. Come on and I'll put some more coffee on. I'm still waiting for Shaw to call in."

"She might be delayed," Garrow said as he turned away from the mantle. "I feel I have to tell you, Ulric, that it I don't think I'll be able to join you here in Sunnydale after all."

"Really?" Ulric frowned. "What about your calling?"

"To be honest, it hasn't been calling as much lately," Garrow muttered.

Before Ulric could press him on that comment, the door burst open and a high-pitched chittering went out. Ulric frowned as he saw Roz march in, letting out a stream of curses in her native language. She kicked at the wall and then punched at a chair, breaking off its top.

"Roz!" Ulric said. "Calm down, what's wrong?"

"A housewife," the woman hissed. "A stupid, powerless, untalented housewife! A master plan, all the time spent with those idiots and a stupid housewife swipes my crystal and-----"

"The crystal?" Ulric said in confusion. "I have it."

Roz spun toward him, her eyes wide. "What?"

Ulric nodded. "Yes. Joyce gave it to me earlier for safekeeping."

Roz's face broke into a wide and wicked smile that made Ulric suddenly feel very nervous. Before he could speak, the phone rang and he quickly moved to get it.

*****

"Ulric?" Steve said the instant he heard the line pick up. "Don't talk, don't say anything to Garrow, just get the crystal and get over here now and for God's sake, avoid Roz."

"Roz?" Ulric's voice came through. "She's right here, Steven."

"She's there?" Steve demanded.

"Tell him to get out," Zev urgently ordered. "Tell him to get out right now."

"Ulric, get out, just go...Ulric? Ulric? ULRIC?"

*****

Roz picked up the phone and placed it back on the receiver, stepping over the prone body of Ulric as she did. She looked up at Garrow, who was placing the candlestick in his hands back onto the table. "Well, this worked out well," she said.

Garrow nodded as he looked at his unconscious friend. "I'll go find the crystal and get some rope as well." He glanced at Roz. "I take it it's onto plan B, then?"

Roz nodded. "Tie him up and make it fast," she said as she headed out the door. "I've got to go rile up some troops." She smiled. "Don't worry, Father. Armageddon is still going down. We just need to adjust the time a little."

*****

Part fifteen: In which a rebellion is sparked and a new wrinkle of the cosmic variety is added.

The Palace
Varran

"I don't ask for much," Fahn said as he paced before his throne room. "The Great One knows I'm not given much. But is it too much to ask that there be someone, somewhere who can find these people?" He glared at his advisors, who were both silent. "Maro? Jorbell?"

The two men glanced at each other, neither knowing quite what to say. "It...isn't quite that easy..." Jorbell began.

"How can it not be?!" Fahn burst out, sitting on his throne. "They are a simple band of only a dozen. How can they escape detection from your soldiers?"

"We suspect they may have gone into the Nieulian Forests," Maro said. "In which case, my Lord, finding them will require going in and taking on the residents."

Fahn paused. "And?"

Maro and Jorbell looked at each other. "Um, My Lord," Jorbell began nervously. "We have something of an agreement with the Peritusan. We leave them alone, they do not make much trouble for us."

"I'm tired of them," Fahn muttered. "I'm tired of their attitude, I'm tired of having to listen to their complaints, frankly, I'm just tired of the fact they refuse to let any of their best lovers to me when I demand it." He paused and nodded. "Search the forests. If need be, raze them. Find Melroy and kill anyone who gets in the way." He raised an eyebrow at them. "Is there anyone who has a problem with that?"

His two aides briefly paused before shaking their heads and, with a bow, moving away.

"He's losing it," Jorbell muttered as soon as they were out of earshot. "I'm telling you, this obsession with Melroy will be his undoing."

Maro sighed. "I hate to say it, but I think you may be right. He's reminding me too much of the Fuhrer in the last days." He shook his head. "Perhaps we should be exploring the option of leaving while we can."

"What about the attack Fahn's ordered?"

Maro shrugged. "You know him. He'll probably have forgotten about it by nightfall. It's not as if we have to worry too much about some rabble in a forest."

*****

The Nieulian Forests

Cal's eyes slowly blinked open as he turned his head to the side. He realized he was in a soft bed, the coolness on his skin letting him know he was naked. He blinked as he saw a female body lying next to him, her bare back on display. He took a moment to take in the mane of multi- colored hair lying on the pillow and then closed his eyes and winced.

*Oh, God, I couldn't have been THAT drunk!*

*****

"I hate to admit it," Robin began. "But I sort of missed the place." He and Liam were sitting by the edge of one of the walkways, legs dangling over the side as they looked upward.

"Earth is fine and all but sunrises like that just aren't possible."

"I still want to get back," Liam said. He rubbed at his long chin. "Viva la revolution and all but I miss old Sunnydale."

Robin nodded. "I miss Amy."

"I miss Shaw."

"Hey, I love my woman."

"So do I," Liam softly said.

Robin paused before staring at him. "You do, don't you?" he softly said. "I'll be damned, you really love her?"

Liam looked away. "That girl...I'm feeling for her, Robbie, like I haven't felt for any lass since..." He trailed off and looked down.

"Liam," Robin said, draping a hand over his friend. "Listen. You're my best friend and frankly, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have sparking it with Shaw. If you do feel that way, then go for it."

"Not that simple, Robbie," Liam replied. "There's still...her. It just wouldn't be right."

Robin shook his head. "Liam, come on, you can't keep holding onto her memory like that. She wouldn't have wanted that for you." He leaned forward. "You've got something that could be good," he urged. "Don't let it slip away, Liam. For her and for you."

Before Liam could reply, footsteps echoed and the two turned to see Maximus walking by them. He paused and looked at the two faeries, his face showing a peace that he hadn't felt in far too long a time. "Thank you," he softly said. He continued to walk away as Robin and Liam shared a small smile.

*****

"The natives are restless," Tarring commented as he paced the walkway. The McDaniels were with him, gazing over the railing at the activity below. It seemed that the residents of the village were starting to move upward, via elevators and stairways, congregating toward the large tree in the middle of the village.

"Never a good sign," Nicky muttered, rubbing at his chin.

"Honey, please," Katie begged her husband. "Let's not have any comparisons to Custer or something."

"Have faith, Katie," Tarring said, adjusting his collar. "God gives to those who hope."

"I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree with religion, Father," Nicky sighed.

"Not regular church-goers?" Tarring asked, not sounding upset about it.

"I stopped talking to God when he took my baby away," Katie said in a hard voice.

Tarring gently sighed. "He exists, Katie. And he will still believe in you, no matter what. Try to draw faith from that, if nothing else."

Katie simply looked away. Given her Catholic upbringing, turning her back on the church had been hard but she had felt no choice. Any God who would take away something she'd wanted so much was not a God she felt like worshiping. Recognizing the look on his wife's face, Nicky rubbed at her shoulders for support. Tarring looked at them and sighed. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Katie. I truly am and I pray that someday you can understand that God must have had a greater plan for your daughter that gives her a home in Heaven." Katie simply turned her head away, unwilling to listen.

Nicky looked to the other end of the walkway and his eyes brightened. "Well, here comes two people who probably don't consider this trip a disaster." Tarring and Katie followed his gaze to see Kim and Sean walking forward. The two were walking in a professional manner, the easy and steady pace they had perfected as police officers. However, the effect was spoiled by the way the two held hands and had smiles on their faces.

"Ah, young love," Tarring said simply. "It's always something to see."

"Hope they make it last like we have," Katie said, giving her husband a quick kiss.

"So, what's the news?" Kim asked as they approached.

"So far, it looks like a town meeting's going down," Nicky explained. "Looks like nearly everyone is going. I guess we might as well."

"Where are the girls?" Sean said, glancing about.

"I'm 260 years old, I hardly qualify as a girl," Elizabeth said as she walked up. Marybeth and Lucy followed, the air between the two much lighter than it had been only the day before. Lucy was getting used to holding a sword at her side, trying to adjust it with her outfit.

"Anyone seen Mel?" Marybeth asked, less out of any romantic interest and now honest curiosity. "He wasn't in his room when we stopped by."

A flurry of shaking heads went out as the teenager frowned. "Hope he hasn't decided to run off or something."

"Lad strikes me as a bit too level-headed for that," Liam stated.

"Ah, and on that brilliant cue..." Robin announced as Shirley came rushing up to the group.

"Hi," she said, seeming more subdued than usual. "Sorry, was sleeping off one too many drinks."

She shook her head. "Say whatever else you will about their liquor, you get over the hangovers a lot quicker."

"Thank you so much for that vital info," Sean sarcastically said. "Where's Cal?"

"Why would I know?" Shirley said quickly. "Am I the brother's keeper?"

Before anyone could respond to that, Cal quickly came up to meet them, also seeming less intense than he had the day before. "Okay, what's the stitch?" he asked. "There gonna be a rumble or what?"

"We're trying to figure that out," Sean told him. "If it does get nasty...I really don't know where we can go for safety."

"Buck up, laddie," Liam told the cop as he and Robin rose to their feet. "Always darkest before the dawn and all that."

"Actually, from what I saw, it's pretty light here just before the dawn," Marybeth stated.

"Hope that doesn't mean the darkness comes in early."

"Don't be pessimistic, kiddo," Robin told her. "It's such a sad trait to take up at such a young age."

"I don't know if I'm going to get older," Marybeth muttered.

"Watch it, I said."

"How long can it take to decide how to kick us out?" Cal asked.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," Maximus observed.

"Well, you oughta know, you helped build it!"

"Your staggering grasp of history is not even worth commenting on."

"Yeah, that line would work better with Robin," Liam said.

Everyone stared at him. "What?" Maximus asked.

"Oh, aye," Liam nodded. "Yer stomping grounds, the Coliseum? Robbie planned it."

"First the obelisk in Egypt, then Stonehenge, then that." Robin sighed. "Just once, it'd be nice for my design work to be appreciated."

"At least you're not the only one," Liam observed. "Remember Xander dissing Raiden on the ying-yang symbol?"

"I still don't know whether he's brave or suicidal or just dumb," Robin snorted. He and Liam saw everyone staring at them. "Sorry, old argument."

"I can't believe I'm on a first-name basis with these people," Elizabeth muttered.

"Okay, keep it quiet." The group all looked up to see Mel striding toward them. Barely glancing at them, he walked by, heading toward the main center of the village. "We've got a meeting to crash and a cause to start." He continued to march on as the others stared.

"What the hell was that about?" Sean asked. "What's gotten into him?"

Maximus let a small smile come over his face. "I think it may just what his father was hoping for," he stated.

As the group walked on, Shirley reached out to pull Cal back a bit. He faced her, appearing as nervous as she did. She brushed back her hair and looked at her feet. "Listen..." she started.

"About last night." She looked back up at him. "It was great."

"Real great."

"And I enjoyed it."

"Me too."

"It's just..." Shirley waved at herself, then at Cal. "Let's face it, you and me are not couple material. It's not the race thing," she quickly said. "Trust me, I've had more than my shares on the chocolate train..."

"Thanks for the tactful nickname."

"Sorry," Shirley blew a strand of purple hair away from her face. "So, it's not because of your skin. It's just that...well..."

"I'm a con man and you're a nutcase," Cal easily shrugged.

"Exactly," Shirley nodded. "So, I think it's best to just put it aside, you know? Just enjoy it as it was. One special night but that's it."

"Friends?" Cal said, extending a hand.

"Friends," Shirley replied, taking it. With that, they turned and walked back to follow the group.

<I'll be damned. A couple who actually prefer being friends.>

<Law of averages, laddie. It catches up to even love eventually.>

*****

The large hall on the top of the tallest tree in the forest was basically an amphitheater. The flat platform in the center held the attention of all in the stands. It was a mix of the various peoples who had taken refugee in the village, the different types preferring to stick with their own kind, throwing suspicious glances at the other.

In the center of the hall was, of course, Dullrena, looking as imperious and disdainful as ever. Near her was the Granton chief, Bekor, stood, looking as impassive as the rock his skin resembled. On the other end of the dias was Eril, looking quite calm despite the looks of open hatred he was getting.

"I do not see why we are even holding debate," Dullrena stated. "They are not of our world. They mean nothing to us, except the cause for more pain from Fahn."

"And you believe handing them over to him will appease him?" Eril demanded. "You don't know what he's like. This obsession with obtaining Melroy borders on insanity. He is ready, willing and able to burn this forest and everyone in it to get him."

"All the better we do it," Maro stated. He rose from his seat, stepping forward on the dias to face the guard. "We give him over as a sign of peace and it may allow us all to survive."

Eril stared at him in astonishment. "You who were his father's advisor would suggest such a course of action?"

"It's because I was his father's advisor that I suggest it," Maro shot back. "He is only one boy. What can he do against Fahn's forces?"

"I think he's more than a mere boy," a hooded monk stated from his place in the front row. "In him is the blood of kings. In him is the strength that can win over all."

Dullrena sniffed. "And what would a monk know of battle? Leave such talk to those who are experienced in combat."

"Dullrena," the monk said as he rose to his feet, his hands moving to his hood. "I have more experience in battle than you would imagine." He pulled back his hood, allowing his face to be clearly seen. A collective gasp went out from several people in the crowd who recognized him.

Dullrena stared in shock, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. "It cannot be..." she whispered.

"It's Ujaki!" someone in the crowd yelled out. "He's alive!" An excited rush of conversation echoed across the hall as many tried to move closer to the former general. At the entrance to the hall, watching the commotion, Maximus commented, "The man has a following."

"Now you know how we feel with you," Nicky remarked.

Raising his voice to be heard over the din, the monk spoke. "We may have survived thus far staying within our own borders and our own affairs. But that time is soon ending, sooner than we may think." He faced the crowd. "You've all felt his wrath, his anger, his disdain for you and your ways. Do any of you truly believe that the situation will improve? The return of Melroy is a sign, a sign that the time has come for us to stand and take back what is ours!"

"I already have what is mine," Dullrena said, getting over her shock at seeing Ujaki alive.

"My lands and my people are safe."

"And you believe that will continue?" Ujaki said. "If there is one thing that is a universal truth, it is that once the concept of rebellion is born, its existence is an undisputable certainty."

"A monk advocating rebellion?" Dullrena sardonically remarked. "I have heard it all now."

"You haven't heard from me." Everyone turned their heads to the side of the chamber as Mel strode forward. Dullrena blinked as she took in the young man. There was something in his manner that hadn't been there before, a confidence but even more than that...A commanding presence that somehow managed to attract attention to himself, attention that he could build on.

He gazed out over the crowd, letting the murmur at his arrival fade before speaking. "For half my life," he began. "I have listened to stories about this planet. About who we are. Who we were. What could be expected of me and what I could expect of you." He shook his head. "Funny, I never expected to see that a people so proud would allow themselves to be so easily dominated."

"Easy?" Mekor stated with his rumbling voice. "You believe it has been easy to live here under his rule?"

"Considering how it doesn't take as much effort as you might think to stand against Fahn, I'd say so, yes," Mel shot back. "Honestly, he's one man. Yes, he has his troops but he is outnumbered by those who would oppose him. I don't mean just here, I mean in the cities as well."

"He's right," Eril spoke up. "I've been in the streets, I've heard the whispers. There are many, many, many who would willingly fight against Fahn. All they need is to see that there is a chance for victory."

Dullrena shook her head. "What you are saying is idiocy of the highest order," she declared. "Even all of my people together could not oppose his forces."

"Neither can mine," Bekor added.

"No," Mel admitted. He raised an eyebrow. "But together..."

Dullrena and Bekor both stared at him in disbelief. "Surely you cannot be serious," the woman said.

"I am serious."

"And I'm Shirley!"

Ignoring her, Mel pressed on. "Yes, work together. Face up to the fact that Fahn is the real enemy, not each other."

Dullrena pointed at Bekor. "I am not allying with one whose people are responsible for the hunting of the derauns on our southern territories!"

"I have already said we are not responsible for that!" the Granton retorted. "But if we are being honest and clear, I will not place my people with those who destroyed our shrine at Wekor's Point!"

"We did nothing to your-----"

"SHUT UP!"

It was hard to tell what was more surprising: The sudden volume and commanding tone Mel's voice attained or how it was actually enough to silence Dullrena and Bekor. The two stared as the young man shook his head. "I've been listening to accusations like that all around the place the last day," he began. "One village says another village attacked, that village says it was the other way around. Someone loses a shrine, someone a farming area, everyone suffers and they're convinced someone else is to blame for it." He threw up his hands. "God, are you people genetically blind or something? He's playing you!"

"What?" Dullrena demanded.

"He's playing off your old prejudices and petty little rivalries," Mel clarified. "He's setting you against each other, always ready to jump at each other's throats, always too suspicious to cooperate. As long as you can't work together, he knows you won't be able to work against him."

"He could be right," Eril remarked, rubbing his chin. "It's just the sort of duplicitous maneuver that would appeal to Fahn. Turning one's enemies against each other."

Bekor was doubtful. "Do you have anything to back up this theory?"

Mel turned his head toward one man. "Tell them, Maro," he said flatly.

The man blinked, seeming as surprised as everyone else at Mel's statement. "What?" he asked in confusion. "Melroy, what are you-----"

"It only makes sense." Mel's voice was calm yet there was an iciness to it even Dullrena appreciated, cold anger in his eyes as he glared at Maro. "You were the only major advisor to my father to escape Fahn's revolt alive. And you've done rather well for yourself in exile. Where better place for a spy to hide and work out of in secret."

"Yeah," Cal stated, his eyes narrowing at Maro. "Maybe the same asshole who tried to dump a bunch of rocks on us!"

"I was never near that cave!" Maro burst out.

"Uh-huh and how'd you know it happened near the cave?" Cal asked, his arms crossed before him. As Maro blanched with guilt, the con turned toward Sean and shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe he actually fell for that."

Maro became aware of how pretty much the entire crowd were now gazing at him with new eyes. Eyes that were not at all friendly. He stepped back, swallowing as he tried to calculate how fast he could run. He glanced to one exit only to see it blocked by a pair of guards. It was the same at the others. He glanced toward the one the Earthlings were gathered near, seeing Cal, Sean and Kim crack their knuckles in unison as Elizabeth hefted her sword. A pair of rough hands grabbed him and spun him around. He had a brief look of Eril's fist coming toward him before it all went black.

"Great One, that felt good," Eril muttered, rubbing his knuckles.

Dullrena looked down at the unconscious Maro, then at Mel and a great deal more respect lay in her eyes. "How did you know?"

Mel shrugged. "My father felt someone in his circle must have been secretly aiding Fahn. The sole survivor was a logical suspect. I figured I could flush him out."

"Kid's been watching too many 'Columbo' reruns," Cal muttered.

"Enough with Columbo!" Kim yelled.

Bekor shook his rocky head. "Regardless of this discovery, I still do not believe that aiding the Peritusians is in my best interest."

"I feel the same about you," Dullrena sniped.

"And what of us?" Mel turned to see an elderly man with sandy blond hair rise from the crowd. "We are not soldiers. Not all of us, at any rate. You expect us to bring a fight to the Emperor? To defeat a foe so much more powerful than we are?"

Mel was silent for a long moment, bowing his head as he gathered his thoughts. He finally brought it up as he faced the crowd. He cleared his throat and prayed he would be a lot better at this than in his speech class.

"On the planet I grew up on," he began. "Over two hundred years ago...There was an empire. An empire that was based on a small island but whose influence was felt all around the world. An empire so vast, with colonies placed so far, that the sun never set on it. They were powerful, considered the greatest power in that world by many. And while they were opposed, they never truly faced a challenge that could defeat them.

"They had thirteen colonies on a continent an ocean away from them. Thirteen colonies that made up a small portion of its land mass. They had their problems and their differences. They considered themselves separate from each other and didn't get along very well. But they were joined by the rule of that empire. A rule that became darker as the years went by. It began to impose rules upon them, unjust laws, outrageous taxes and imposing their will over those colonies. They tried to handle it rationally and peacefully, they tried to petition for easier conditions and they tried to appeal to reason. They were answered with harsher laws, more penalties and even outright violence."

Elizabeth decided now wouldn't be the best time to give the British side of things and instead simply let Mel talk. "So these colonies decided it was time to fight for what they believed was theirs. They were farmers, not soldiers. They bickered and argued more than ever as allies. They had different ways of life, different mentalities, different traditions. But they held to the same idea that they and they alone should be able to dictate how they would live their lives. They were being robbed of a right that is important to all civilized, intelligent beings. They were being robbed of their right to choose their own path. They felt they had no other recourse to fight.

"Now, it wasn't easy. Not at all. It wasn't just trying to outmaneuver and outfight the army of that empire. It was working with each other, working to form an army, working to form a government and working to get over their own petty little differences as they went to war.

"And you know who won that war? Those thirteen colonies! Who rose up. Who formed an army. Who managed to humble the greatest empire on earth and won their freedom! Who set down the backbone of what would become one of the greatest nations in that planet's history!"

Mel paused, his eyes flowing over the chamber, seeing the expectant faces of his people.

His people. They were listening to him, following his every word and were willing to follow him.

"Now a lot of people say that what the country's become is far from what they once were. Maybe they're right. But I think that once you cut away all the bullshit and all the bickering and all the rest, when you break it down to the basics, people will choose freedom over most anything. They will prefer to have the right to choose how they live no matter what and they will fight for that right, no matter what."

He took a deep breath as he stared over the audience. "I won't lie to you. Fighting Fahn will not be easy. It will require sacrifice and it will quite probably require more than a few deaths.

This is war and that is what war causes. But I can guarantee that if you don't fight for yourselves, if you don't fight against Fahn then he will come and destroy all of you sooner or later. Again, it will be risky and I don't know if victory can be sure. But I promise you this...if you do win...then a thousand years from now, your descendants are going to look back on this day and wish they could be here. To be here on the day their tribes forgot their pasts and fought for their futures! Is this going to be remembered as the day you lay down and died? Or is this going to be the day you fought for your freedom...and you WON!"

A massive roar erupted from the crowd, which was on its feet in seconds. Dullrena and Bekor saw their people cheering right with them and decided to bow to the inevitable. Mel stood there, trying to fight from smiling at the massive reaction.

"That was bluidy beautiful," Liam whispered, wiping at his eyes.

"Much better than the ID4 speech," Marybeth added.

"Not quite up to Henry the V standards but rather well done," Elizabeth had to admit.

Mel looked at Dullrena who strode forward and extended a hand. He gripped it, shaking it as strongly as he could. "I may be more stubborn than a Oirdian during harvest season," she stated.

"But I know an opportunity when it comes. They will follow you. How can I do no less?"

Eril nodded and looked towards Bekor. "I will spread the word to my people," the Granton said. "You will have fighters."

"Good," Mel said. He looked towards Eril. "You have military experience and you know Fahn. I could use your help."

"You'll have it," Eril assured him.

"Good," Mel said. "I'll meet you all in an hour at Dullrena's place. I have something to take care of first." He turned and quickly strode out of the hall, past the other Chicagoans, who slowly followed. "Where is he going?" Lucy asked.

"Ah, probably needs to cool off after that big moment," Shirley said. "I'm sure he's basking in the afterglow of his first step towards ruling, overcome in the elation of a job well done-----"

A retching sound echoed through the forest as the group saw Mel kneeling by the side of the walkway, his head extended over the edge. "Oh, I'm really hoping there's no one down there," Sean muttered.

Mel raised his head up, wiping at his mouth. "Oh, shit," he whispered. "I cannot believe I just did that."

"Yeah, where did that come from?" Kim asked. "Thought you didn't care for this planet, wanted to get back home."

"Came to a realization last night," Mel answered as he got to his feet. He extended his arms to include the entire village. "This...is my home. I can't abandon it."

Maximus looked at him warmly. "Planning a rebellion is something I have some experience with," he stated.

"I can use all the help I can get," Mel admitted. "This won't be easy."

"Find me anything in life that is," Elizabeth sighed.

"Well, at least we don't have to do battle at sea," Lucy sighed. "I get seasick easily."

"You would never have made it in the 18th century then," Elizabeth remarked. "It was the only way around."

"Actually, I rather enjoyed the sea," Maximus said. "I made a nice break after the deserts and plains of Europe."

"Let me guess," Sean dryly said. "You were a pirate."

"No, commander of a naval vessel during the Napoleonic Wars."

"Why do I bother..."

"Well, that settles it, guys," Cal sighed. "We've all elected to die young."

"You are here."

At the deep voice, the entire group turned and faced the figure behind them. It appeared to be an ancient man, hunched over slightly as he leaned on a long staff for support, his head somewhat balding with a white beard that nearly reached the floor. He wore dark robes, his eyes strong despite his age as he looked the group over.

"Yes we are," Kim said, imitating the man's deep voice. "And so are you."

"Hey, it's the old man from scene 37!" Shirley remarked.

The man's eyes raked before them as he cleared his throat. "From a distant world, you come," he rasped. "You bring the king from exile. You help the peoples work together. You are of varied ages and types, various backgrounds. And yet you are willing to aid those of a world not your own." He nodded. "It is the prophecy."

"Oh, here we go," Liam muttered as Robin groaned.

"Have you not wondered why you are here?" the elderly man said.

"Okay, I give up, why?" Nicky asked.

"To fulfill the plans of the Great One."

"I already told you, they don't do sarcasm here," Sean muttered to the other man.

"It is the time we have awaited," the man said. "The time we have beheld. The time we have dedicated long nights of prayer to."

"Yeah," an obviously doubtful Cal said. "Look, just in case, where are your nitro pills?"

"Cal!" Marybeth hissed. "Show some respect!"

"Respect! The guy looks like a troll doll!"

"Long ago," the elder stated. "There were defenders to protect our world from evil. Not only ours but many others. Defenders granted great power. But they faded and with the fading came the dark times, times of evil, times of despair, times of-----"

"Yeah, yeah, you're breaking our hearts, buddy, can you get on with it!"

"CAL!"

Kim was staring at the man. "Just how old are you, anyway?"

"Centuries old," the elder replied.

"Really? You don't look a day over dead."

"There was a prophecy," the elder stated. "That one day, a group would come who could call upon an Avatar. A group who could achieve the powers needed to save this world and theirs. You must find the powers and avoid tricks before the sands of time run out quick."

"Great," Liam muttered. "Rhyming riddles. Those are the worst."

"I know," Robin agreed. "Things that rhyme always get you into trouble."

He nodded before becoming aware of everyone staring at him. "What?" he asked in puzzlement.

Maximus appraised the elderly man. "You're telling us that we're the ones the prophecy pointed to?"

"You're not going to believe this balderdash, are you?" Elizabeth demanded.

Maximus glanced at her. "Elizabeth, we're on another planet, we're about to start a rebellion, we're allied with two faeries and I spent last night in the company of my wife who has been dead for nearly two thousand years. At this point, I'm open to pretty much anything."

"It is said," the elder continued. "That the Avatar may carry the answer to life."

"Oh, I know this one!" Shirley spoke up. "42!"

The man looked over the group and tried to straighten up. "You are they," he said. "It is who have been chosen for this honor."

"Um, yeah," Sean said with uncertainly. "Listen, it's nice and all but I don't think that's in our game plan, guys?"

A chorus of muttered denials and shaking heads went out as the rest of the group agreed with the cop.

The man placed a hand into his pocket, his eyes seeming to flash. "You misunderstand," he flatly intoned. "It was not a request."

His hand emerged from his pocket and thrust out, a shower of dust flying outward and into the air. It seemed to flow, landing on Nicky, Katie, Kim, Sean, Cal, Shirley, Marybeth and Maximus.

Before they could even understand what was happening, there was a flash of light and the eight were suddenly gone, bits of dust clinging to the floor.

Elizabeth, Lucy, Mel, Robin, Liam and Tarring stared in confusion at the spot, then at the man.

He turned to them, giving a wink and when he spoke it was with a voice much younger and animated than before. "Get ready for one hell of a show," he laughed. In a flash of light and smoke, he was gone.

Robin and Liam slowly stared at each other. "Was that..." Liam started.

Robin nodded dumbly.

"Oh, saints preserve them," the leprechaun sighed.

*****

"The HELL was that?!" was the first thing out of Katie's mouth as her eyes cleared. The humans looked around the clearing they suddenly found themselves in. It appeared to be the ruins of a temple of some sort, with broken stone walls and altars strewn about. A wind blew through it and the group realized they were on some sort of mountaintop, the skies dark above them.

"Where the hell are we now?" Kim muttered, holding at her arms as she felt the bitter night chill. Sean moved toward her, his hands rubbing her shoulders as he looked around.

"Can I just say I am really starting to freaking hate this planet!" Marybeth demanded as she adjusted her glasses. "What the hell are we doing here, anyway?"

A flash caught her attention and she, along with everyone else, glanced to the steps leading to what had been the main altar of the temple. There was a puff of smoke as a figure suddenly materialized. The smoke cleared and the figure stood revealed and despite everything they had been through in the last few hours, the Chicagoans couldn't help but stare at the man before them.

He appeared to be in his twenties, his hair a dark brown except for a shock of silver right over the forehead. He had a sharp reddish goatee, his face marked by a wide smile, blue eyes gleaming behind a pair of wire-framed glasses. His solid five-foot-ten build was clad in a pair of wild red, purple and green striped pants with an orange and green checked shirt, purple loafers, a black and white shirt underneath an orange and pink vest and adorning his neck was one of the most garish ties ever designed by man. Orange gloves covered his hands while a long white and red scarf hung around his neck and trailed near the ground. A wide-brimmed Panama hat was atop his head while purple loafers were on his feet. He leaned on a thick cane, the curved handle marked with intricate runes. He smiled widely, flashing a bright set of teeth at the confused group and when he spoke it was with a laugh in his voice.

"Hello, my name is Romino and I'll be your Celestial Avatar for cosmic empowerment this evening."

*****

Part sixteen: In which reinforcements are called in and tempers run high.

Joyce Summers' Home
Sunnydale, CA
May 25th, 1999
0025 Hours PST

"Let."

"Me."

"GO!"

Despite the fact that they both had empowerments, Giles and Jenny were having a very difficult time trying to hold Shaw back. The instant the line Steve had to Ulric had been terminated, the Harper had moved to the door, which Steve quickly blocked. He stood before it, his arms crossed before him, letting Shaw know she wasn't leaving. "Shaw, calm down."

"I will not!" she hissed. "Let me go to him! I have to help him!"

"Shaw, we don't know what's happened," Amy told her cousin. "You could be walking into a trap."

"I will deal with it," Shaw hissed.

"Shaw, I know how close Ulric is to you," Steve stated. "And I know how angry you are with Roz. But going in there half-cocked is the worst thing you can do right now."

"I do not care!" Shaw barked, her face locked in anger. "I will handle myself to get him back."

Steve stiffened. "You're not going, Shaw."

Shaw narrowed her eyes at him. "Steven...I do not want to hurt you. But if I have to, I will do what it takes-------"

With a speed no one was ready for, Zev's hand snaked out to strike at Shaw's neck. His fingers were splayed, touching exactly the right nerve clusters. After pressing down, Zev swiftly chopped the flat of his hand right at the base of Shaw's neck. The elven stiffened, then her eyes closed and she fell back, Giles and Jenny suddenly having to hold up her limp form.

"The hell?!" Faith demanded.

"That should put her out for a few hours," Zev stated in a calm tone. He turned and marched back into the living room. "We have more important matters at hand."

Faith marched over, grabbing the alien from behind and spinning him around. "Listen, asshole!" she hissed, pointing a finger in Zev's face. "Elf-girl has been through a lot tonight, thanks to that psycho sister of yours! Ulric is like a father to her, one of the first people she connected with when she came to Earth and now your sis has got him! Now, granted, she needed to cool down but if you ever do something like that again, I'm ripping those spikes out of your arms and turning you into Zev-ka-bob, got it?!"

Zev narrowed his eyes at her. "Are you threatening me, girl?"

"Call me girl again," Faith snarled. "Do that to my gal again...And I'll show you I don't threaten. I back it up."

Zev stared at her for a long moment. Then, one side of his mouth tugged slightly upward. "You know...I think I may like you."

Steve sighed and turned to Giles and Jenny. "You two put Shaw down, then join us in the living room. We've got a lot to talk about."

*****

"Okay, what's her plan?" Steve asked as soon as they had entered. "Where will she go?"

"Not out of town," Zev muttered, rubbing his chin. "Not yet, at least."

"You sure about that?" Xander asked as the alien paced.

Zev nodded. "She hasn't done what she came here to do. She hates leaving something open like that."

Randi frowned. "But we've stopped her. She couldn't use that crystal thing."

Zev frowned. "My sister may be mad, but she's careful. She always has a back-up plan. She may not have been able to use it for the conjunction tonight but mark my words, she does have a motive for getting it back."

Steve shook his head. "But we know who she is now, we have reason to find her, why wouldn't she just leave?"

"Mr. St. Wolf, you obviously have experience fighting evil," Zev began. "But this is different. We are dealing with a madwoman who truly believes she is more important than anyone else in existence. She doesn't even think of people as people, simply pieces on the game board she enjoys playing. The only thing in life she respects is death and lots of it. She's out there, she has something planned and we have to find out what."

"On that," Giles announced as he entered the room. He held a book in his hands, flipping through the pages intently, Jenny at his heels. "This conjunction...something about it seemed so familiar when I was researching earlier."

"He was checking some of the books Roz had left out," Jenny explained to the group. "I admit there might be a clue in there somewhere. I'm surprised Roz didn't bother to clean it out."

"No doubt, she believed that by this point, this house would be a crater," Zev pointed out. "Thanks in no small part to you."

Steve glared at him. "Look, we had good intentions...."

"Mr. St. Wolf, I believe you and I know all about the road to Surton and what it's paved with," Zev coldly informed him. "I accept that you didn't know who my sister truly was and that you were used by her like she uses most people. But that still fails to make up for the fact that you nearly helped her end all life on this world."

"And thank you so much for continuing to point that out," Cordelia sarcastically said.

During this, Giles had been perusing the book, his eyes scanning the texts until it came to one passage that had been underlined. "Oh my God," he choked.

"Rupert, what is it?" Jenny asked with concern.

Giles kept staring at the page, his eyes going wide. "Oh my God."

"Giles, what is it?" Buffy pressed.

He looked up, his face pale. "Oh my dear God."

Xander looked to Joyce. "Okay, when Giles starts ranting with the Big G-Word, it's officially sweating time."

Giles swallowed. "I think I've figured out what Roz's backup plan is."

"What?" Steve demanded.

"At midnight, she's going to open the Hellmouth."

"But that trick NEVER works!"

"XANDER!"

Giles looked down at the book as he quickly moved to the table. He lay the book down, the group congregating around the table as he pointed to the passage. "The conjunction has passed but the celestial bodies are still in a formation. That formation is an opportunity, a very rare one, to use an ancient incantation to open a portal between Earth and one of the demonic realms."

"The Hellmouth," Steve grimly concluded.

"Indeed," Giles just as grimly confirmed. "This has happened two or three times in the past but either no one at the time understood it or they didn't have the massive power center needed to begin the spell."

"If she has the crystal, she's got the power," Zev announced. He glanced toward Joyce. "When did you switch them?"

Joyce frowned. "After that talk you did with Roz. I had a couple of the fake crystals hanging around, just did a quick paint job, then switched them when no one was looking, took it right to Ulric at his church."

"Shit," Amy hissed. "That was after we did those spells on it."

"So she definetely has the power," Zev nodded. "And she knows how to use it."

Steve looked at him. "You know her best. What do you think she'll do?"

Zev concentrated on the question. "She'll probably figure you already know. As I said, she's no doubt hidden herself from whatever scans you might do. Personally, I think she'll try to gather herself some sort of defense against you all."

"And in Sunnydale," Buffy noted. "She's got plenty of nasty options."

"So what do we do?" Cordelia asked.

"Well," Steve began. "We're got a psycho out there who used us all with no remorse and has the ability to open the Hellmouth. Any other option than kicking the shit out of her isn't worth talking about."

Zev peered at him. "I'm starting to grow a strange respect for you..."

Steve bit his lip as he rubbed at his face. "Rupert, you sure we've got until midnight?"

Giles nodded. "It has to be done then in order to take advantage of the alignment."

"So we've got a little less than 24 hours," Steve sighed. "Looks like it's up to us to save the world."

Zev peered at him. "You truly believe that, don't you?"

"You don't?" Steve asked.

"I accept you people have some sort of purpose," Zev admitted. "But I find it the height of arrogance to assume to know what that purpose is."

"Like I had a choice, Space Boy," Buffy bit out.

Zev stared at her. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not just Immortal," the Slayer told him. "I'm a Slayer."

Zev raised an eyebrow. "And the Powers That Be chose you? And they say the Gods don't have a sense of humor." He looked over the group. "You actually expect to fight an army of demons and win?"

"Yes," Steve said flatly. "It's what we do."

He looked over toward the others. "Jenny, Giles, try some scrying spells. Maybe Zev's right and she's already hidden but it can't hurt." He looked to Willow, Xander and Cordelia. "Willow, get on the computer, Xander and Cordelia, hit the phones. Contact everyone we know, every ally in the book, tell them we need them and we need them now." He looked toward Amy and Faith.

"You two keep an eye on Shaw. She's going to need some calming down and support when she wakes up." He looked to Joyce. "Joyce...got any cocoa?"

"Oh, man, do we have to call in the guys on this?" Xander complained.

"We need all the manpower we can get," Steve told him.

"Yeah, but they're going to rib us mercilessly on the switch."

"No one ever said the life of a hero would be easy," the Wanderer sighed. "Time is of the essence. So hurry up and stop wasting essence."

Xander glanced at the Slayer. "I'm not liking our chances here, Buffy."

"Why not?"

"A sign of the impending Apocalypse: Steve saying something that sounds like something Giles would say."

Buffy closed her eyes in pain. "We're doomed."

"I heard that!" The Wanderer and the Watcher both said.

Zev stared at them and raised his eyes to the Heavens. "Jurden, open your gates. You have one more follower coming to you."

*****

Willy's
0043 Hours PST

It was a busy night in the bar, with several demons and vampires mingling about, conversations hushed. It had been quieter than usual in Sunnydale the last few nights, with the Scoobies having been preoccupied with Roz and not handling patrols. Willy was quickly moving behind the bar, trying to keep up with the various orders. He looked up at the dark-haired woman who pushed her way to the bar. Before he could ask what she wanted, she suddenly pulled herself up onto the bar, standing on top of it and turning to face the bar. "Excuse me!" she called out in a loud voice.

"Hello? Can I have your attention please?"

The talking died down as everyone turned to look at the strange woman. Roz crossed her arms before her as she prepared to speak. "Hi, I'm Roz, I'm new in town and I thought I could get all of you to help me with a task I have in mind."

"What's that?" a vampire asked.

"Destroying the world."

A loud chorus of laughter rang out throughout the bar. "I'm serious here!" Roz yelled over it.

"Hey, I would have done it by now by a couple of things got in my way."

"Let me guess," one demon remarked. "The Slayer, the Wanderer, the Hunter and their friends."

"Bingo," Roz said. "They cost me what would have been my only chance on any other world. But here, I've got a backup."

"And what's that?" one disbelieving demon asked.

Roz smiled. "At midnight tonight...I'm opening the Hellmouth."

That got her plenty of attention. "That's right," she told them, her smile wide. "I'm blowing that sucker wide open! Hell on Earth, ladies and gentlemen! Once it's open, it's not closing any time soon and humanity is there for the taking. We're talking death, destruction, mayhem, fire and brimstone! There'll be feeding frenzies, terror, murder, global carnage, just like in the good old days!" She leaned forward a bit."And the first ones on the chopping block are going to be the Slayers, the Wanderer and their whole sorry group."

She threw her hands outward. "So spread the word, all! Send it down the demon grapevines, tell your friends, turn a few people if you feel like it. This time tomorrow, Sunnydale becomes party central for the damned! It's the end of the world as we know and are we going to feel fine!" She let out a long and loud cackle as the bar erupted in whoops and cheers.

As the demons began to pour out, Willy looked at them all, appearing nervous. Seeing this, one demon waved it off like it was nothing. "Willy, don't worry. You're gonna stay alive and human. You're the one fixture we gotta keep around. You're one of the things that can't be replaced."

Willy stared at him. "You serious?"

"Willy, the Hellmouth without you...it'd be like Happy Days without Richie. Archie Bunker without the Dingbat. Cheers without Norm. Or Cliff in your case." The demon turned to leave with the rest of the group, a pouting Willy left behind.

"I'm Sam, not Cliff," he murmured as he began to wash up glasses.

*****

Fox Mulder and Dana Scully's home
Georgetown, VA
0056 Hours PST

The ringing of the phone cut through the silence of the bedroom. It took a couple of rings before Fox Mulder could rouse himself from sleep. He blearily rolled over and reached toward the phone. Next to him, Dana Scully sighed as she woke up, pulling the covers over her naked body as her husband picked up the phone. "Hello?" he groaned into it.

He paused to listen the person on the other end. "You don't say." He listened further. "You don't say." He frowned. "You don't say?" He widened his eyes. "You don't say!" He listened more. "You...don't say." He finally nodded. "Okay, we'll be there as soon as possible." He hung up the phone and turned toward his wife.

"I'm not even going to ask who that was," Scully muttered, her eyes still shut. "I know what your answer will be..."

"That was Xander. It looks like there's trouble in Sunnydale and they need us there ASAP."

Scully opened her eyes to look at him. "You don't say."

*****

Ireland
0103 Hours PST

The ringing of the phone filled the tavern as Torc glanced up from his place behind the bar. "Aid? You near that?" Silence filled the room. "Aid?" There was a bustling of steps and then Aideen Jaspern burst into the bar from the kitchen. "Sorry," she breathlessly said. "Still used to waving a hand and having it appear in my hand."

Torc chuckled as he watched her pick up the phone and speak into it. "Hello?"

"Aideen? It's Cordelia."

"Hey, what's up?" the faery asked.

"We've got some serious shit going down here in Sunnydale."

"Ah, so you're calling in the professionals?" she said with a laugh.

"We need you to call up the Knights," Cordelia confirmed. "Also, Robin and Liam are out of town so we're going to need someone with teleport capabilities."

"Think I can swing that," Aideen remarked. "We'll be there as soon as we can."

"Wait a few hours," Cordelia told her. "It's still early morning over here."

"Got it," Aideen nodded. "We'll be there." She hung up the phone and turned to her centuries-long lover. "Better put up a closed sign, love," she said. "We've got some ruckus to take care of."

Torc sighed as he came around the bar. "This is what I get for doing good..."

"Ah, ye love it and ye know it," Aideen laughed as she picked up the phone and started to make some calls.

*****

Duncan MacLeod's Dojo
Seacouver, WA
0106 Hours PST

As the phone rang loudly, Amanda pulled her head up into a scowl. "You know, this was always a lot easier before the telephone was invented."

Duncan MacLeod let out a groan himself as he sat up on the couch, committing the unwanted task of pushing the half-naked Immortal beauty off him. He unconsciously pulled his open shirt around him as he turned to pick up the phone. "This had better be good," he muttered Amanda sighed as she sat back on the couch. She made no mood to put back on her shirt, confident that she and Duncan would be back to business in a few minutes. She had decided to surprise her long-time lover with a visit during her stopover to Hawaii and so was not happy with the interruption.

She watched as Duncan listened to the other end of the line. "When? Who else is coming? Do you want me to...Okay. All right, I'll call Richie and Amanda is here too. We'll be there as soon as we can."

Amanda frowned as he hung up the phone. "Was that about?"

Duncan sighed. "It looks like there's a big mess in Sunnydale. Steve's calling in all comers."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "And, being the overgrown Boy Scout you are, you agreed to come, right?"

"You know me so well," Duncan smiled. He dialed up a number, listening for a moment before it picked up. "Richie, good thing you're in town. We've got something big going down in Sunnydale, Steve needs our help. Yeah, it sounded serious all right. I'm going to make plane arrangements so give Connor a call for me. Right, talk to you soon." He hung up as he looked to Amanda. "It'll be a bit. You know how Richie is."

Amanda smirked as she rose to her feet and approached him. "I also know that it will take a while to get a flight down to Sunnydale," she remarked as she wrapped her arms around him. "So why not have a little warm-up right now?" She pulled him down to the couch, the Highlander briefly struggling but soon surrendering to the inevitable.

*****

Nash's Antiques
New York City, NY
0109 Hours PST

Connor MacLeod had much the same reservations of the telephone as his clansman did. He groaned as he rolled over in bed, picking the phone off the hook and murming a muffled "Hello?" into it.

"Connor, Richie," the young Immortal's voice echoed on the other end of the line. "Sounds like Duncan's favorite student...well, second-favorite...needs a hand."

Connor's groan grew louder. "Oh, God, what mess has Steve got himself into this time?"

"I don't know for sure but he's calling up everyone he knows. We'll be heading out there soon, I'm guessing he wants you and Maxine to come."

"I'll call her," Connor sighed. "When will you and Duncan be there?"

"Well, he's with Amanda now so I guess you'll be getting there before we will," Richie quipped. "See you soon."

With a sigh, Connor hung up the phone and rose from bed. "I really hate having to be the good guy," he muttered.

*****

St. Louis, MO
0115 Hours PST

It was dim in the hotel room, the light of the computer screen the only lighting. The dark-haired man who sat before it, dressed only in a pair of boxers and a light shirt, tapped at the keys absently, checking over various data as it appeared before him. He was so engrossed that he didn't register the presence of the robed woman until she wrapped her arms around him from behind and kissed his neck. "You know," Andrea Parker said in a mock insulted tone. "Most men would give anything to spend an entire night with a gorgeous and insatiable Amazon."

Jarod Russell gave his lover a smile. "Most women would be happy to wait for a empowered man to give them all the attention they deserve."

Parker pouted and wrapped a hand around him. "Come on, Jarod. You can check out the web later."

"I just need to check this one thing," the Pretender told her. "I need to make sure that children's center gets the right sponsor."

"With that corrupt developer put away, they should have a chance," Parker said. "God, I finally understand what drove you all those years. It feels great to do good." She nuzzled her mouth against his neck. "Not to mention very, very sexy."

Jarod smiled and was about to shut things down when a small icon flashed. "Hold up," he said.

"E-Mail coming in." He clicked over to his mail, frowning as he saw the message. "Uh oh."

Parker brought her head up to look at the message: DEFCON 1. GET TO SUNNYDALE ASAP. WILLOW.

"So much for vacation time," Jarod sighed as he logged off and moved to where his bags sat.

"I'll call the airport, see when the next flight out is."

Parker sighed and moved to her own bags. "I take it back," she muttered as she started to pull out some clothes. "Being good sucks."

*****

Malibu, CA
0121 Hours PST

The screen was alive with a wild montage of images, all of them showing action of some sort, flashing by so quickly, it was almost impossible to keep up with them. Machine guns blasting away, fists and kicks being thrown about, men brawling around, a shot of a sexy woman taking off her shirt, finally ending with a shot of a man standing at what appeared to be the edge of a volcano with a snowboard at his feet. As the man threw a pair of round-shaped objects into the volcano behind him, a deep voice suddenly spoke up.

"Johnny Cage is..."

The screen then showed that same man boarding down the edge of the mountain, only a few feet ahead of the wave of lava flowing behind him.

"AGENT X."

The screen showed a litany of movie credits as the figure standing before it smiled. He was a handsome and well-built man dressed in a dark robe who bore a very close resemblance to the man who had just been on the screen. "Ah, can I pick 'em or what?" Johnny Cage remarked.

"You know, that's totally physically impossible."

Johnny turned to face the figure on the bed. Sonya Blade lay on her stomach, her elbow propping up her head as she stared at the movie star. The special forces commando showed no shame at the fact she was naked, Johnny's eyes raking over her well-toned and honed body with that lovely derriere exposed. Her face held a smile, her eyes twinkling under her rather tousled short blonde hair.

"So much wire work, grenades aren't that slow to explode and outrunning lava?" She shook her head. "It's shit like that that makes people think my job is easy or fun."

Johnny smiled as he pulled off his robe, revealing his own well-toned body. "Remind me again not to rent John Woo movies next time you're in town," he remarked as he moved back into the bed, giving Sonya a quick kiss on the mouth. She rolled about, exposing her firm breasts as she pulled him into an embrace.

"Actually," she managed to get out between kisses. "I'm grateful to the guy. Thanks to him, all these young idiots think you can actually shoot two revolvers at once and hit anything worth a damn."

They kissed again, enjoying the feeling. In the weeks since the entire Outworld affair, the two had managed to act on their feelings for each other and both had gotten more than enough enjoyment out of it. Neither had any illusions that it would be that serious. Between her work as a commando and his as an actor, both knew they would have to spend a lot of time apart. They also understood each other well enough to know that a house in the suburbs with kids wasn't exactly in the game plan. They were content to enjoy what they had for as long as they had it and be satisfied.

So, both were annoyed by the sound of the doorbell, Johnny glaring up and shaking his head. "Dammit, no matter how many times you tell security..." he muttered as he rolled out of bed and quickly wrapped himself in a robe. Sonya groaned herself as she wrapped the sheets around her.

Johnny marched out of the bedroom and through the foyer of his expansive beach house.

It was a bit smaller than the mansion he had sold for five million dollars a few months earlier but still fitting for a major movie star. Surprisingly, there weren't as many tributes to his past successes as one might have expected. There were a couple of posters, some photos of him with other celebrities, a shelf with various awards from fans and distributors. But Johnny had gotten a bit more humble since competing in Mortal Kombat and was realized shoving his fame down other people's throats wasn't going to get him far.

He opened the door and stared at the man on the other side. He was a tall, powerfully built black man with muscled arms crossed before him, the light from the doorway reflecting off his bald head. He gave Johnny a smile as he leaned in. "Hey, Johnny."

"Jax," Johnny said in a flat tone. "I thought we had discussed this. Are we not men?"

Jackson Briggs shook his head as he stepped inside. "Sorry to break it up, star boy, but we've got work to do."

"Johnny, what's-----" Sonya, the sheets wrapped around her body, broke off and glared at Jax.

She moved in from the bedroom, trying to keep the sheet around her. "Look, Sonya, it's Jax," Johnny said in a mock friendly tone "Let's kill him."

Even wrapped in a sheet, Sonya still managed to look intimidating as she glared at her partner.

"Jax," she said in a flat tone. "I thought we had an understanding. Are we not partners?"

"I do hate to spoil this," the black commando said, sounding truly apologetic. "But we've gotta get going."

"Dammit, they promised a full weekend-----"

"That ain't it, girl," Jax interrupted Sonya. "Just got a call from Sunnydale. They've got some serious shit going down and they need all the help they can get."

Sonya shook her head. "Dammit..."

"Sorry," Jax said. "I promised them I'd find you right off and let you know so we could leave."

"Thank you so much for your diligence," Johnny sarcastically said.

Jax smiled softly. "Soooo....I figure I won't be able to find you for another, oh, hour and a half?"

Johnny and Sonya exchanged a look, then both beamed at Jax. Without a word, Johnny shut the door and Jax could hear him and Sonya kissing each other. He chuckled as he moved off to wait in the car. "Sonya smiling and laughing. If I'd known giving her a faery empowerment would mellow her out like that, I'd have done it years ago."

*****

Headquarters of the Order of the Grail
0125 Hours PST

The armory was usually quiet at this time of the day. Quiet save for the noises made by its sole occupant, an attractive woman with black hair who wore a pair of jeans and a workshort, both stained with dirt. She was leaning over a hot furnace, a hammer in her hand, slamming it down on a broad piece of metal before her. She adjusted it and smacked the hammer into it again, trying to bend the armor into the right shape she wanted.

With the vast resources of the Grail Order, it would have been much easier for Kate to design a suit of armor. But even after 600 years, the Immortal was a blacksmith at heart and just enjoyed working on things with her own two hands. She still had some ideas on how to improve the Order's armor designs and had wanted to try them out.

A cough got her attention and she turned with some surprise at the man who had entered.

"Marc. What is it?"

The head of the Grail Knights crossed his arms as he looked to Kate. "The Wanderer has called an alarm from Sunnydale. He says he needs the best Knights we have there as soon as possible. I'm already calling on Arthur and some others. I figure you'd be an asset."

"I'm there," Kate immediately said. She lowered the metal plate and wiped sweat off her brow. "It'll give me a chance to see that new armor in combat."

"I sincerely hope it measures up to your standards," Marc said as he led her off.

"Not as much as I do," Kate said, only half-jokingly. "I have a reputation to uphold."

*****

Joyce Summer's Home
Sunnydale, CA
0158 Hours PST

"What sort of armament do you have?" Zev asked as he watched the group bustle about.

"Probably not as much as your arm-a-ment," Xander remarked.

Zev glared at him. "Don't make jokes."

Cordelia snorted. "That's like asking the sun to orbit the opposite way."

"The main armory's at my house," Steve informed the alien. "I'd prefer to wait until the rest of the group gets here."

"Think you have enough to do the job?" Zev pressed with some skepticism.

Steve returned his look evenly. "We'll have to."

Zev shook his head. "I still don't know if this will accomplish anything. I've tried direct assaults on Roz before and she still manages to get away."

"Shouldn't we try evacuating the town?" Joyce asked.

"And where would you evacuate them to, Joyce?" Zev sardonically observed. "Where are you going to evacuate the state, the country, the planet? You people haven't even made it past your own moon! Why the hell do you think Roz picked you? She loves to push up the body count and it helps when the people are at the low end of the technological pool."

"This woman have a soul?" Faith asked.

"That's a debatable point," Zev muttered.

"Is she a demon?" Kendra asked.

"Not in physical terms, no."

"Damn," Buffy muttered. "Giles, you sure there are no loopholes?"

"I know we're all upset about being played," Steve announced. "But guilt is not a luxury we can enjoy right now."

"Oh, don't worry," Faith growled. "I'm working on the luxury of seething rage."

"Don't let it overwhelm you," Zev warned her. "As you're no doubt aware, my sister is an expert at exploiting psychological flaws. She sees any weakness, she'll use it to get you angry, off-balance and then move in for the kill." He sniffed. "Sun Tzu would be proud. Or Machivelli."

"How do you know so much about us?" Buffy asked.

"A device on my ship that hooks me up to various information centers," Zev explained.

"Within half an hour I was up on your history, languages and customs."

"Wow," Willow said. "So you understand everything about us?"

Zev frowned. "No. I can't understand why the Village People are so popular."

"Dude, WE can't understand that," Larry told him.

"Well, we should have reinforcements here soon," Randi said.

"Great," Faith muttered. "We get to announce our humiliation to the whole bunch of them."

Cordelia shook her head. "So not only are they going to rip on us for the switch, they're going to get on us for being played like a drum."

"Okay, I think I've had enough of this bullshit."

Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared in surprise at the person who had spoken.

"Mom?" Buffy asked in confusion.

Her mother stood tall and strong, her arms crossed before her. "You got used. All right, I can accept that but standing around and moaning about it is not going to solve anything."

"Easy for you to say," Cordelia sniffed. "You're the only one who saw her for what she was."

"Cordelia, if I hadn't met Zev first, gotten to know him a bit first, I might well have believed Roz's story," Joyce told her. "Look, you made a mistake, all right? Everyone makes mistakes, even soldiers."

Steve shook his head grimly. "We can't afford mistakes, Joyce. We can't------"

"Cant' what, Steven?" she broke in. "Can't listen to people? Can't take the slightest chance someone's lying to you? We take that chance every single day, Steve." She looked over the group with concern in her eyes. "What happened here was not your fault, none of you. You were played by a professional who's been doing it for years. You're all so used to obvious evils, you forgot to consider someone so innocent-looking could be a monster. Well, it happens. Plus, there's the matter of that little gem of hers blinding you to the flaws in her story. Without that, you might have seen through her earlier, that's why she had it. It's happened and I don't like it any more than you do. Now, are you going to treat it as a lesson, chalk one up for experience and move on or are you going to let it overwhelm you with guilt to the point where you can't fight anyone? Which is it going to be?"

There was a long silence, broken by a voice behind her. "Joyce?" She turned to see Zev standing in the doorway. "Nothing personal, but your husband was an idiot."

Joyce frowned. "Why?"

Zev looked at her with true respect. "Because that's the only way he could ever let a woman like you go." He turned and marched away without a second look at the group.

"Man, is he alien," Xander muttered.

"I think you mean alienated," Cordelia added.

Joyce looked over to where Buffy was standing away from the rest of the group, near the stairway. She moved over to her, seeing her daughter with a forlon expression on her face.

"Honey?" she softly began. "Are you all right?"

"I never saw it, Mom," Buffy sadly said. "She was a monster and I never saw it."

"Buffy, she fooled everyone, even me for a while," Joyce said. "You trusted her, there's nothing wrong with that."

Buffy sighed. "I'm so used to obvious evils. I didn't think they could be like that."

Joyce patted her on the shoulder. "If it makes you feel any better, honey, I think it just proves you're still human."

Buffy smiled back, then grew serious again. "Mom? I'm sorry about what happened with Zev. It's just..." She sighed. "I guess I wasn't as comfortable with you dating as I thought and Roz played into that."

Joyce gave her daughter a comforting smile. "Honey, I know it's not usual for you to see me like that. But, as hard as it may be for you to accept, just because I'm your mother doesn't mean I'm not a woman. I do have needs. And, the whole switch thing really got me eager to get out more."

Buffy frowned. "Mom, if we take this conversation any further, I may have to kill myself."

Joyce chuckled as she gave her daughter a quick hug. "I'll take the hint for once and end it there," she said as she made her way into the kitchen.

She paused as she saw Zev sitting on the kitchen floor. His legs were crossed, his eyes closed, his arms extended outward. As she watched, his spikes popped out then in, a process he repeated a few times. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Meditation," was the crisp reply. He rose up to his feet, spikes still popping in and out as he turned to face her. "It helps me calm down."

"Which you could use," Joyce remarked. She looked at him and felt a small twinge of fear at the look on his face. "Zev...what are you going to do? To her?"

"Look at my face, Joyce. What does it tell you?"

Joyce swallowed at the look in Zev's eyes and tried to calm herself. "Zev...I know you're angry but...but you just can't kill her in cold blood."

"Actually, our blood is a few degrees warmer than yours..."

"Zev," Joyce pressed. "Look, I know you hate her and all but...you can't sink to her level."

Zev slowly craned his neck at her. "Her level?" he softly asked. "Her. Level?" In a flash, he was right in front of Joyce, his face angrier than she had seen so far. "SHE KILLED MY WORLD! Our people, our history, our culture, thousands upon thousands of years of writings, treasures, art, civilization, discovery all wiped out in minutes!" He heaved with breath, his face flushed. "I'm the last, Joyce," he said more softly. "I'm the last of my people. I'm not going to live forever. When I go...my culture dies. Because of her. Don't give me a speech about how it's not right to kill her. It is. It's what I've earned, what I deserve after all she did to me. To me and countless others."

He turned away, blinking back a sudden rush of tears. Joyce stared at him, not knowing what to say in the face of such an emotional outburst. She had seen people dealing with loss before, particularly Shaw and Faith. But even they couldn't match Zev at this moment. Joyce could see that talking to him in this state wouldn't serve much purpose and turned to go. She paused before looking back at him. "I guess you were right."

"About what?" he asked, his back still turned to her.

"You said we all had secret lives, remember?" Joyce reminded him.

"Somehow, I didn't think we'd reveal them this soon," Zev answered.

"Tell me about it," the Slayer's mother sighed. She walked away, leaving him alone to his thoughts and his pain.

*****

The Sanctuary of Merlin
0203 Hours PST

"Opening the Hellmouth?" Merlin sighed and shook his head. "Good Lord, Steven and I thought Arthur gave me headaches." The ancient wizard nodded. "Yes, yes, I'll definitely be there. Don't worry." He hung up the phone and immediately moved to his den to pick up the right potions. He shook his head as he did, still troubled by the nagging feeling he'd had all day. A feeling that just wouldn't go away yet he couldn't quite identify.

"What can it be?" the wizard murmured. "Just what can it be? And how does this play into Sunnydale?"

"I can tell you."

Merlin froze, then spun around to stare at the figure in the room. He was a normal-looking man with short hair, red except for a long wave of white running down the middle from brow to neck. He was dressed in a dark suit and his eyes glowered at the wizard.

"Blood," Merlin whispered. "How did you get in here?"

"I haven't spent the last few centuries without acquiring some skills," the man called Blood said as put his hands in his pockets. "It's not my first time here."

Merlin tried to regain his confidence "What are you doing here, Blood?"

"I needed to deliver a message," the man said as he took a careful step forward. He looked at the wizard and his glower deepened. "Believe me, the less time I spend with you, the better for both of us. But, I had to say this."

"Saw what?" Merlin asked in confusion.

"Actually," Blood sighed. "He had to say this."

"He?" Merlin frowned. His eyes widened as he saw Blood bow his head, his hands spreading. "Oh, now wait a damn..."

But it was too late. Blood was already speaking. "Gone, gone, o form of man..."

His skin seemed to hiss as his body suddenly seemed to glow as if on fire, its configuration shifting.

"Arise the Demon..."

The body took on a new shape, the face no longer that of a man but a monstrous creature, his arms thrown out as he screamed out his name.

"ERTIGAN!"

*****

Chapter seventeen: In which power is bestowed and a heartbreak healed.

Varra

The humans stared in wonder at the bizarre figure standing before them. "My God," Marybeth said, looking over at Shirley. "Someone who makes you look underdressed."

"Thank you," Romino said as he stepped forward, twirling his cane in his hand. "Ah, it's great to be back in the saddle again, ready to run it high and set the town red." He looked over the group, his grin wide and broad. "Well, well, well, this is the fun bunch, isn't it, kiddies?" His eyes fell on Maximus and he raised an eyebrow. "So. You're the famous general. Tell me, do you have information vegetable, animal and mineral? Do you know the Kings of England and can quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical..."

"So," Maximus remarked to no one in particular. "This is hell."

"Who or what are you?" Nicky demanded.

The man appeared hurt. "What? Didn't I make it clear enough? All righty then..."

He smacked the end of his cane into the ground and vanished in a puff of smoke. Suddenly, darkness filled the temple area as more flashes of smoke arose. A spotlight appeared out of nowhere to illuminate a single area just before the man appeared in it in another cloud of vapor.

He threw out his hands and began to call out in a loud voice.

"Ladeees and gentleeeeemeeeen! In person and in living color! From the Temple of the Ancients on this big beautiful planet we call Varra! The main man, the can of spam, the sold-out jam, the dapper rapper, the toe tapper, the heir to Frankie Zappa, you know a cool dude like me ONLY shops at the Gap-a! The weird, whacky, wild, wonderful Celestial Avatar for this section of the Multiverse, the one, the only ROMINO!" He leaned forward, holding up a finger. "Some segments prerecorded for this time zone."

He laughed and spun his cane around. "Well, it's nice to be here, hope I can stay long. But you never really know, do you?" He leaned in, raising an eyebrow. "Have you ever had the feeling that you wanted to go? But you still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?"

Everyone stared as he suddenly started to tap one toe and sing. "You knew it was right, wasn't wrong, still you knew it wouldn't be very long. It's tough to have the feeling that you wanted to go..." He vanished in a puff of smoke to appear behind them. "Still have the feeling that you wanted to stay.." He vanished again.

"Started to go," He popped back in.

"Changed your mind." He popped back to the other side of the clearing.

"Started to go again..." he said from his place before them.

"Changed your mind again..." he called from the far side.

He appeared before them again, dancing in place. "Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go but you still had the feeling that you wanted to stay..."

The group had all backed away from this apparent madman with nervous expressions. "How did you do that?" Marybeth asked.

"I got my methods, Marybeth," Romino answered.

She blinked. "How do you know my name?"

He laughed. "I told you I'm wild."

"You mean wise."

"No! Wild! If I was wise I wouldn't need all this smoke every time I appear and disappear!" He hacked and waved his hat before him. "Gods, that stuff...is killing me!"

"Seriously," Cal broke in. "How did you do that?"

"Well, I can't tell you my magic secrets," Romino told him. "If I tell you my magic secrets, they won't be secret and if they're not secret, they're not magic and if they're not magic, then I'm just some poor schmuck with a third-rate smoke trick."

"What is this about?" Nicky asked.

"Glad you asked, Nicky," Romino said as he twirled his cane around, then planted it into the ground and leaned on it. "Let's make this short and simple. Some heros are born. Some are made. Whereas you, my friends...have just been drafted."

There was a long moment of confused silence before Kim spoke up. "As much as I know I'm going to regret this," she sighed. "I think we need more explanation."

"Ah, music to my ears," Romino said with a smile. "Not as good as 'We Built This City,' of course but hey..." He brought himself up as he spoke. "Okey dokey, here's the deal. A very, very, VERY long time ago in a galaxy really not that far off, a great power was born. Sort of a leftover of this big clash of cosmic beings that we really don't have time to get into but would make a fascinating book someday. Anyhoo, these powers have long laid in a dormant state, waiting for a very, very special group of people to drop by." He leaned in. "And so you have dropped."

"Us?" Sean demanded. "You're giving us some empowerment?"

"Let's not call it that," Romino waved off. "Let's call it a gift, let's call it a blessing, let's call it a boost, let's call it an upgrade." He paused and bent his head. "My, we're calling it a lot of things, aren't we?"

"Why us?" Katie asked.

Romino raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

"Well, can't argue with that overwhelming logic," Shirley noted.

"Well, I'd hoped you'd be by," Romino told her. "You came here by accident but have now begun a revolution which sets up the time of chaos mentioned in the prophecy and allows you to gain these powers to save this world and probably yours as well." He laughed. "Isn't the universe an amazing place? Me, I wouldn't live anywhere else."

"Just who are you, really?" Maximus pressed.

"Willy Wonka on acid?"

"SHUT UP-----" Everyone stopped as they thought about Shirley's words.

"Actually, she's on target with this one," Sean noted.

"Suppose we don't want this?" Cal asked.

Romino narrowed his eyes, his face growing sober. "Buddy, we are dealing with timetables and forces that are far, far beyond what you can comprehend. This was set into motion a *very* long time ago and if you think the guys behind it took into consideration you turning it down, you have another think coming." He brightened. "You wanna take a break now?"

"A break?" Cal blankly asked.

"Your other think! You have one coming, you know!"

"This guy would confuse the hell out of Lewis Carroll," Nicky muttered.

Kim groaned and rubbed at her face. She shrieked as Romino blasted an air horn next to her ear. "No one sleeps when I'm on," the man said, placing the horn into his jacket.

"Seriously," Katie pressed. "Why would be chosen to receive this power?"

Romino shrugged. "I don't make those kind of decisions, hon. I just try to maintain some direction for this part of the multiverse and do what's needed. And in this case, that's making sure all of you find yourselves taking on the aspects."

"Aspects?" Maximus queried. "Of what?"

"The Pantheon."

The humans looked at each other with confusion. "The Pantheon? Isn't that some ruins in Greece?"

"No, that's the Parthenon," Romino patiently explained. "The Pantheon is what you are about to become. Eight beings, eight identities, eight very great sets of powers. With the responsibility to match, of course."

"What do you mean?" Kim quickly asked.

Romino leaned on his cane as he let out a breath. "I mean, Kimmy, that having power is easy. It's using it wisely that's the tricky part. I let you be able to access the full range of your abilities, it'll be too much for you and it'll probably corrupt even hearts as pure as yours. Plus, it'll bring in one of those big cosmic balance issues and the dark side of the scope is going to bring in some evil guys of the same power and that would just be very, very messy. So, unless it is *extremely* dire circumstances and there's no other recourse, your full and complete potential is going to have to remain blocked from usage. Trust me, it's better this way."

"With great power comes great responsibility," Marybeth whispered.

Romino smiled and rubbed a hand at her head. "I like this kid."

"Now when you say powers," Sean started. "Exactly what does that entail?"

Romino let out a sly smile. "Pardon me while I pump up the overdrama."

He carefully stepped forward to face Sean and Kim. "Darkness and light. Two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other. Darkness isn't always evil, it can be used for good as well. Light, well, light is the very symbol of purity. But they are weapons and you two are able to handle them. You balance each other out perfectly. One darkness, one light. Balanced as well in powers as you are in your hearts." He pointed to Sean, then to Kim. "You're Darknighter. You're Apalla."

He turned on his heel to face the McDaniels. "Nature has always been part of you. The only thing you love as much as you love each other. That's a bond between the two of you and planets that can't be broken. Just like the bond you have with each other. The male is the hunter, the animals his brethren. The female is one with the earth, nature hears her call. He's Pretor. She's Elementra."

He paced his way towards Marybeth. "The stars have always called for you. Ever since you were a little girl, you've spent your time gazing at the heavens, dreaming about being among them. Well, kiddo, dreams come true. You can soar among the stars, call upon them, draw upon their energies, be all you've wanted to be. You're Astra."

His gaze next fell on Cal. "What is a con but a magician?" he rhetorically asked. "A wizard of words, of slight of hand, of thinking fast and coming up with the right combination of skills to come out on top. Now, you've got a chance to use that skill for good. To be one of the most powerful mages in existence and use it for the right side. You're Shamaran."

He moved to Shirley. "You've dreamt wild dreams to escape the pain of your life," he softly said. "To avoid thinking about what they did to you. What they took away. You've dreamed of something better and you've dreamed pretty big. Now, you can bring dreams to life. Yours and others. You're Imator."

He finally turned to Maximus. "Fighting has been your life. It's what you were made for, what you've developed into. You fight and fight hard, you always have. I can make you even better. I can help you develop into the greatest fighter alive. A warrior without peer. A leader anyone would gladly follow. You're Soldar."

The Earthlings exchanged unsure glances. "What's with the names?" Kim asked.

Romino shrugged. "It's an old issue having to do with the beings who bestowed these powers in the first place. I kind of like it."

Sean snorted. "Don't tell me we have to wear costumes too."

"Well, I prefer to think of them more as uniforms..." Romino started.

Sean looked at him. "Please say you're joking?"

"Not about this."

"We get costumes?!" Marybeth's face broke into a wide grin. "Cooool."

"Well, don't expect spandex and masks," Romino informed her. "Gotta flex with the times, you know. Have to make sure they're necessary and not just decoration."

"Oh, I get you," Marybeth nodded. "Like Captain Cold's glasses. They're not just to make him look more like an iceman, they help protect him from the light of his freeze ray. Or------"

"Marybeth," Kim broke in. "Don't make me have to hurt you."

"So, it's not spandex?" Sean asked. "Cause I'm a Chicago cop and we don't go for shit like that."

"No," Romino said. "But there will be some nice touches here and there to make them unique."

"Uh oh," Katie murmured.

"Ah, relax," Romino said with a wave of his hand. "I designed them myself."

He ignored the looks of mild horror everyone (except Marybeth and Shirley) were giving his outfit and turned and skipped back a bit, his tone becoming jovial once more. "So, who's up for some major power right now?"

"Um, any way we can say no?" Katie asked.

"Nope." Romino reached into his pocket and unfolded a large scrap of paper. He skimmed it down and held it up. "See, it says right here that the party of the first part, hereafter to be referred to as the cosmically powered and dashingly handsome Romino, has contracted the parties of the second to the ninth parts, your names are all here, to be chosen to receive powers via the party of the first part, the cosmically powered and dashingly handsome Romino, per ipso facto, said powers bestowed upon proper circumstances, plural eunium, entering temple indicates non-verbal contract accepting powers, claudis domino, powers at Romino's pleasure, sertan poros, your lives the tender the negotiations will be settled on, blahblahblah..."

"Is anyone getting any of this?" Marybeth demanded.

"Not a word," Katie admitted.

Romino rolled up the contract, placing it back in his pocket. "Look, you go there, you beat the guardians for the power, you meet, you fight, you kill them, it's just more fun than your heart can stand."

"Now hold on," Maximus started. "I still don't know about-----"

Romino raised the cane in his hands and slammed the tip into the ground. There was a bright flash of white light and when their eyes cleared, the group found themselves seemingly in an empty white chamber.

"Now what?" Kim asked yet again.

The group looked around, Shirley looking down. She tapped her foot, then bent down and waved a hand under her. "Wow." She looked up to the others. "This is amazing! We are standing on absolutely nothing!"

The others nodded.

Shirley bit her lip. "Well...you know what this means is going to happen next, right?"

The others nodded.

Eight loud yells went out as the entire group suddenly dropped down, falling into the void beneath them.

*****

The Nieulian Forests

Liam was silent as he gazed across the forest. Down below and in the trees, there was much movement, a lot of excitement building. The smell of battle was in the air as everyone was preparing for the upcoming fight against Fahn. Liam could tell that some of the Pertusian warriors were giving a crash course on combat with villagers, Granton planning to coordinate their efforts with the humans. Robin was off with some of the other leaders. Liam's thoughts weren't on him or the battle or even the missing humans. They were on someone else in particular.

He missed her. It was as simple as that. Despite the fact they hadn't left on the best circumstances, Liam loved Shaw and he missed her. He missed her more than he would have thought possible. Even more than...her.

Liam let out a long sigh. He had to face it. He was thinking of Shaw even more than he used to think of Kathleen. That woman...It wasn't just that she was beautiful and brave. It wasn't even because she was half-elf. No, the woman had a fire within her, a spirit as stubborn and mischievous as Liam's own. That's why he loved her. That's why it hurt to love her.

He bowed his head and sighed again. "I don't want to hurt ye," he whispered. "I never wanted to."

"I know," a light female voice came from behind him. "I've always known."

Liam was frozen in place. *Can't be...* he thought to himself. He slowly turned around to see a figure standing behind him. She was a very attractive woman in her early twenties, her orange-red hair flowing in curls around her. She wore a dress of medieval times that was bright white and her being seemed to glow. She smiled widely at him. "Hello, Liam."

Liam blinked, then turned away, glaring in the direction Robin was. "I'm gonna kick his bluidy ass..."

"Ah, ease up, Liam," Kathleen Harris Danahure stated. "The lad was worried about you. He thought it was about time we had a talk."

Liam looked away, not wanting to face her. "We don't have anything to talk about."

Her eyes narrowed. "Liam...turn around."

As always, her tone had no room for disagreement and Liam faced her. She looked at him and sighed. "Liam, Liam, Liam, my poor lad," she sadly began. "I always knew you were stubborn. But I never imagined you'd be taking it this far for this long."

Liam blinked in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I mean how you've been carrying on about me for the last 800 years," his late wife answered. "I never meant for you to be haunted by my memory, Liam. Especially when it comes to Shaw."

"I don't want to-----"

"Tough, we're talking about this."

"Now, accushla...."

"Liam," She broke in. "Either you listen to me or I'll do what both of us know we'll do and kick yer ass so you will listen to me."

Liam fell silent as Kathleen crossed her arms and gazed at him. "I've been looking at you," she softly began. "I guess you suspected that. I wanted to see how you were doing."

Liam looked at his feet. "Aye. And I'm sure you're not happy with most of it."

Kathleen shook her head. "Not the other marriages. I knew ye couldn't remain without companionship for long. I always did. I approve of you going out and showing some women the same love and care you showed me." She paused and frowned. "Course, some of the choices were a bit odd but..."

Liam rolled his eyes. "Ye came down from heaven to bitch at me about my romances?"

"No, that's the bonus," Kathleen quipped. She grew serious as she appraised him. "I came here to tell you to stop blaming yourself. For me. For what happened."

"I can't help it," Liam quietly said. "I killed you. You died because of me."

"You did it to stop my suffering," Kathleen told him. "I know that. It's what I was wanting at the time, I hurt so much."

"Because of me," Liam said, feeling tears come to his eyes. "Because I wasn't there to help ye. Wasn't there to protect ye. After all we went through, all we did...I left you with nothing."

Kathleen's face was one of true love, tears in her eyes. She moved to Liam, cupping his face in her hands and turning it toward her. "Nothing?" she choked. "You idiot. You gave me everything." She leaned in, her lips brushing against his with an odd touch of electricity. She backed away, looking him in the eye. "Now I want to give you something. My blessing."

Liam blinked. "What?"

Kathleen looked him in the eye. "Do you love this woman?"

"Aye," Liam calmly stated.

"As much as you do me?"

"Aye."

Kathleen bit her lip. "More...than me?"

Liam looked away before going back to her. "Aye," he whispered.

Kathleen kissed him on the cheek. "Then go to her, Liam," she said. "Go and tell her that." She shook her head. "I never wanted to haunt you, Liam. I never wanted you to hold back because of my memory. I'm dead. You're alive. It's wonderful that you still love me and I love you the more for it. But don't le me hold you back from something you want. All I want, all I've ever wanted, is for you to be happy. She can give you that. You can give that to her."

She patted a hand against him. "I could never think less of you, Liam. Certainly not for following your heart." She let her lips graze against his and then backed away. "Go get her, lad." With a final smile at her one-time husband, she faded away into nothingness. Liam watched her go, feeling tears flow down his cheeks...along with a piece of his soul he had long thought lost being restored.

*****

"I."

"HATE."

"This."

"Planet!"

Maximus was hard pressed to argue with Kim, Sean, Marybeth and Cal. He had the misfortune of landing first and although the dirt wasn't as hard as he thought it'd be, the weight of seven people landing on top of him was enough to hurt even his Immortal bones.

Groans went out as the group tried to get their feet. "Any idea how long we were falling?" Katie groaned as she managed to stand up.

"Felt like at least ten minutes," Nicky stated.

"Foot per second..." Marybeth muttered. "So roughly six hundred feet...Acceleration thirty per second per second..." She ran some calculations in her head and raised her eyebrows. "Wow. Faster than the Indy."

Cal gave her a funny look. "There's something wrong with you, you know that?"

Marybeth shrugged. "Ah, just basic math. Doesn't take a science whiz to figure it." She paused and then nodded. "Course, I am a science whiz so it helps..."

The group became aware of their surroundings. They were on a dirt floor of what appeared to be a cavern of some sort. Above them was a large hole so high, they couldn't even see the light at the top. Before them was a pair of massive doors that seemed comprised of rock with no handles or knobs.

"I keep expecting to see a sign saying 'abandon all hope, ye who enter,'" Sean muttered.

Right on cue, a shimmering covered the top of the doorway. Runes of flame suddenly appeared and formed into words. PREPARE TO BE TESTED. The flames ran down to the door and a series of figures appeared, eight in all, each one more hideous and dangerous-looking than the one before it.

"Does that guys' knees really bend the other way?" Katie asked.

"How many horns on that one?" Kim motioned.

"The one with the green spiked tail or the one with the three heads?" Sean replied.

"Last time I saw something this ugly," Shirley remarked. "Was when I mixed a magna marathon with a bottle of tequila."

"Eight of them," Katie noted. "Eight of us. Anyone getting a bad feeling about this?"

"Tested," Maximus muttered, slowly nodding. "I think that if we're going to have this power...we have to fight those....things..."

"Um, the incredibly ugly, monstrous and smallest of which can rip us from ass to arm things?" Cal noted.

Maximus nodded and the group became quiet.

"Soooo....what now?" Marybeth asked.

There was a long silence as no one knew quite how to answer that question. "What do you feel about this?" Maximus asked them all.

There was a pause before Shirley spoke up. "Hell, I'm in."

Everyone looked at her in surprise. "You are?"

"Sure," Shirley said with a shrug. "Not like I've got all that much in my life worth a damn. I always figured if I was going to go out, it was gonna be with style." She moved forward to the step before the door. She then turned back to the group. "Well? Anyone else?"

Nicky gave his wife a long look. She looked back at them. Neither said a word but they knew what the other was thinking. Hands joined, they walked up the step to stand before the door.

Sean looked to Kim. "Well?" he said.

She looked back. "You doing it?"

Sean nodded. "Yeah. I am."

Kim moved in to kiss him on the lips. "I'm with you, partner. In everything."

"Oh, God, it's like listening to Reed and Sue Richards..." Marybeth groaned as she followed the two policemen up.

Cal ran a hand down his face before moving to join them. "Funny...Of all the ways I figured I'd buy it, I never imagined it'd be surrounded by white folk..."

Maximus looked at them and was unable to keep back a slight smile. "If this is the day I finally meet my end," he began as he walked up the steps. "I can at least be sure it is in good company."

"Awww, that is the sweetest thing anyone's said about me in a long time..." Shirley sighed.

Cal rolled his eyes. "I swear, if you're the last voice I hear, I'll hound you through the afterlife."

Maximus looked to the doors and then to the others. "Ready?"

"No," Sean sighed. "But I guess that doesn't really matter now, does it?"

Maximus moved forward, pressing his hands on the doors and pushing. It budged, but not very much. Sean was by his side, pushing as well. Then Nicky. Then Kim and Katie and Cal and Shirley and Marybeth. The eight pushed as hard as they could and the doors began to swing wide open, a bright light flooding from the other side as they moved forward....

And found themselves standing in the exact same clearing they had literally dropped out of only minutes before. Romino was right there, leaning on his cane and smiling at them. "Welcome back. Did you pick up a T-shirt?"

Everyone looked behind them and then back, their faces in utter confusion. "Okay..." Cal started. "What the hell just happened?"

"What about the test?" Kim erupted.

"You passed it," Romino said with a grin.

They all just stared at him. "What do you mean," Nicky carefully began. "We passed it?"

Romino stepped up, his cane twirling. "I mean that the test was to see whether or not you were willing to do what it took to get this. Surviving a challenge isn't the true measure. It's choosing to accept that challenge that tells me what kind of people you are."

"So....no ugly monsters to fight?" Cal asked with hope.

"Nary a one."

"Well, that's anti-climactic..." Shirley muttered.

"Well, come on," the Avatar said. "Fighting a bunch of monsters to get some major power? That's way too 'Power Rangers the Movie' for me."

Marybeth peered at him. "You saw..."

"Never said I liked it," Romino was quick to point out. "Like I said, the test was to see whether or not you guys were willing to fight for this. And now that you've shown you have, that you've shown me you're worthy, let's get on with the giving of cosmic powers, all rights reserved, patent pending, void where prohibited. These empowerments are the exclusive property of Romino and may not be reproduced or distributed without the express written consent of Romino."

He backed up, turning in place, his cane spinning in his hand and then moving around him. His voice began to echo throughout the clearing, growing in volume and strength. Electricity seemed to build throughout the clearing, one that even the humans had to feel. Romino held up his cane, head pointing to the sky above as his odd tongue built to a height, then suddenly broke into English.

"Power soak down, rock 'em all toes to gums..." He looked to the group and grinned. "Look out, baby...cause here it comes."

He slammed the cane down into the ground and the entire clearing rumbled. Waves of multi-colored magical energy flowed from the sky, covering the clearing, touching down on the Earthlings. They were yanked off their feet and spread out around the edges of the area, startled yells filling the air. Romino lifted his cane, the head still pointed toward the sky as a rumble like thunder rolled down. A column of bright white energy blasted downward, surrounding Romino. He bathed in it, arms held over his head. With a smile, he thrust out his arms and eight beams of energy erupted from around him, each one striking one of the humans.

And it began.

*****

SHIRLEY:

*Her mind exploded with imagery...The dreams and desires of those around her...Of those in the village...of those in the city...Her mind was open like it had never been before and she suddenly realized she could make those dreams come to life. Any dream she wanted she could use.

And she liked it.*

*****

The figure raised his head and concentrated on the new sensation. "Well," he whispered. "A new player in the realm. The Weaver. It has been a long time since that presence has graced us. Well...if it is for the common good...I see no reason I should not allow her to do what she needs in my kingdom."

And Morpheus, Sandman, Dream of the Endless, bowed his head and waited to see what would happen next.

*****

NICKY:

*His voice was a roar, a bellow, a snarl, a whoop, a growl and a dozen more animal cries. He could feel them in him. Their strength, their agility, their speed, their reflexes, their power. Mastery of ways of fighting filled his mind as well. Archery, whip and more, he knew how to use them all. But his true weapon was the animals. He could talk to them, communicate with them, get them to aid him as he would aid them.

For now...he was one of them.*

*****

KATIE:

*Deserts, oceans, mountains, forests, plains, rivers...every form of land there was...she could feel it all. She could feel it within her as if they were her blood and her skeleton, her flesh and muscle. She could feel the control she now had, how a world would react to her whim. How she could bend the elements, command the land and ocean, how she was truly an earth mother...

Because she was no one with the earth.*

*****

The angels watched the duo carefully, the sensations they felt and the power growing within them. The younger of the two, an attractive young woman with long dark hair, looked at them with a forlorn expression. The elder angel placed a hand upon her shoulder and gave her a tight, reassuring squeeze. "It will be all right," she softly said. "They will be stronger than ever. You know that."

The younger angel nodded. "Yes. It is just...difficult being this close yet so far."

The angel once known to humanity as Joan of Arc gave her charge another squeeze. "You may see them soon. Be strong."

The younger angel simply nodded and stared at the scene in the realm far below.

*****

MARYBETH:

*She felt like she was flying, soaring among the ways she had only read about and seen in books. She could feel energies she never imagined existed, feel her mind expanding beyond its previous limits. What had long been simply scientific theory and research was now absolute fact for her. She knew how far the nearest asteroid belt was, how fast she could get there and back...She could fly there. If she wanted, she could actually fly there. The stars were her domain now. She could go there as she pleased.

And it was pleasing her quite a bit.*

*****

Hidden in a crevice near the dark side of the Moon, away from the eyes of satellites, far from the Apollo landing sites, was a large white building that was certainly not of human origin. Within the building was a plethora of scientific artifacts, the sight of which would make any scientist sell his soul for a year there. In the heart of the building was a monitor room which showed scenes from around the world. And not just the one but others, universes that lay outside of ours.

Standing in the midst of the room was a massive figure, at least twenty feet tall, dressed in white robes. His head was bald and overlarge, his eyes white without pupils and fixed upon one screen in particular.

"This could be intriguing," the figure remarked. "Such power on this Earth...It will be interesting to see how it shall unfold."

The being known as Uatu then did what his race did best.

He Watched.

*****

KIM:

*Light was all she could see. All she could feel. Light in all its forms, in all its abilities. She could see in every spectrum, she could draw upon it, fly upon it. Light was more than simply what could be seen. It was what could be used, what she could feel.

And she'd never felt so bright in all her life.*

*****

SEAN:

*The shadows covered him but gave him no pain. He felt no fear at the sensations around him. Darkness was not to be feared. It could be used as an ally. He could see that now. He could change it, control it, travel through it, use it as a weapon. He could let it be part of his being...

But not part of his heart.*

*****

"Here you are, sir," the waiter at the restaurant told the man in the dark booth. He brought a bottle of wine forward, showing the label to the man. "Chateau De Leville, 1882. A good year."

"Yes," the man stated in a dry British accent. "Yes, it was at that." He watched the waiter pour the wine and offer him a glass. The man took it with a nod, his gloved hands wrapping around the goblet and drinking from it. The waiter moved away, trying to hide his desire to openly run from the man at the table.

It wasn't just the fact that the man was dressed in black from head to toe. Or that he had a top hat and cane lying on the table. It was the way he exuded a dark aura around him, the way the lights seemed to dim in his presence, no matter where he was. It was as if darkness was a second skin to the man and one he rather enjoyed.

The glass was being lowered when the man suddenly stopped, his eyes darting about as if looking for someone. "Can it be...?" he whispered. "I had thought him just a legend." He concentrated and his eyes widened in a rare show of surprise. "And with a being of light as well? My, my...this does enhance the drama, doesn't it?"

The glass was raised once more and the Shade took a long sip as he tried to tell just how this would play into things.

*****

CAL:

*Spells written in languages long unspoken by mind became as memorable as his CD rack. Power flowed into him, magical abilities that had not been seen in millennia filling every fiber of his being. More importantly was knowledge, knowledge of how to use them...and when not to. He realized that being such a powerful mage was one thing.

Knowing how to be a good one was the challenge.*

*****

Merlin erected a shield over himself as he stared at the figure that moments ago had been Jason Blood. The Demon Etrigan was broad-shouldered but hunched, dressed in boots, a dark brown pantsuit, red tunic and a blue cape. Its skin was yellow, his head bald and his features truly demonic with pointed ears and red eyes with no pupils. It laughed, its voice deep and throaty, its fangs showing as it gazed at the wizard.

"Please, Merlin, tis no cause for alarm! For once, foul Etrigan means no harm! A message to you, I want to send, so to me an ear you should bend."

Merlin narrowed his eyes at the creature he was partially responsible for. "What do you want, creature?"

"Why so harsh a welcome, Merlin?" Etrigan quipped. "Hate to be reminded of such a great sin?"

"Just speak your piece and be gone," Merlin hissed.

"I merely wanted to inform you of a race, going on in ye old hot place," the Demon continued. "They feel the signs of the Hellmouth opening, you see, so old Sunnydale is the place to be! Be they big or nasty, hearty or hale, converge they do, on fair Sunnydale! When the gate is open, you shall behold, a force of evil ne'er foretold!"

"Then why tell me?" Merlin said with obvious suspicion. "Don't you want that?"

Etrigan appeared hurt. "Now what fun would it be, for Earth's destruction me to see? So many ways there here to enjoy, stick with it, I wish to, old boy! So, take this information I gave and kick ass and this world to save!" He backed up, hands outstretched. "Now, gone, gone, foul Etrigan, arise once more, o form of man!"

The transformation reversed, the fire blasting around and swallowing the creature as its otherworldly limbs shifted back to human, yellow skin turning to pink. In seconds, the naked body of Jason Blood was kneeling on the floor, heaving with breath. "God, I hate that part," he groaned. "Thank God he kept it quick this time..." He rose, muttering an incantation so by the time he had straightened, he was once more dressed in a dark suit.

Merlin still didn't lower the shield. "Just what was the point of this?"

Blood adjusted his tie as he gazed at the wizard. "Something's coming, Merlin. I just felt it. I'm sure you did too."

Merlin paused, looking beyond what his eyes saw, beyond what his body could sense, touching the magical area. He frowned. "Yes...Yes, something is coming. Something...I can't sense but...it's strong." His frown deepened. "Almost...as strong as me."

"Maybe even stronger," Blood said. "I don't know and I don't plan on sticking around to find out. Etrigan wanted to deliver the message and resisting him when he's like that is simply murder. Literally." He turned and began to march away.

Merlin lowered the shield and stared at the retreating man. "Jason, wait. I want to-----"

"Don't." Blood turned and fixed an evil look at the mage. "Don't even try, Merlin. Don't even bother apologizing for the hell, and I mean that literally, that you've put me through. It's done with and gone and we both know that if you could do it again, you would in a heartbeat." He shook his head, collecting his emotions. "I've wasted enough time here. I have things to do."

"Jason..." Merlin tried to think of something to say. "If....if there is anything I can do..."

"There isn't. You know that. I know that. He knows that." Blood continued to walk away, back to Merlin, heading toward the exit. "So, let's go our separate ways and try not to run into each other again." He paused by the exit and looked back with a wry look. "Although, I can assure you...when it is your time...Etrigan has already saved you a place below."

He was gone, leaving the prime wizard of Earth wondering just what could be coming...and if he would be able to deal with it.

*****

MAXIMUS:

*Combat was his only thought. How to kill and how to injure his only realizations. How to size up an opponent and instantly know a hundred ways to beat him. How to fight like a hundred men, like a warrior born, like soldiers of a dozen different eras and style mixed into one. How to command armies and perfect strategies. He was no longer simply a soldier.

He was THE soldier.*

*****

The bearded man sat up on his throne as he felt it. The onrush of combat, the control of violence, the abilities of a thousand soldiers all rolled into one man. "Oh, this is good," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Oh, this will be sooo good. If I can just find this guy and...."

He stopped, his face falling as he felt more of the sensation and realized just who and what had this power. "Ah, crap. Him."

Ares flopped back on his throne and sighed. "Dammit, why do all the good soldiers have to be good guys nowadays?"

*****

Romino stood in the middle, watching as the energies struck the humans. He listened to their howls as they were empowered, their bodies contorting in the air. He could feel the power build within them even as their appearances began to shift and alter. His mouth stretched wider and wider into the biggest grin possible as the clearing blossomed with light.

Gods, he loved his work.

*****

Dullrena's chambers had been transformed into the makeshift command center for the hastily assembled army. Mel was at the table, looking at a map of the city that had been hastily drawn by Eril and several others. Eril was there, as were Ujaki, Dullrena, Bekor, Robin and several villagers.

"The areas circled are, I believe, the ones most likely to help us with our attack," Eril was saying. "But there still many areas where he can send out reinforcements and trap our people."

"Are there any other important dangers?" Mel asked with a commanding air.

Eril bit his lip. "There could be one," he sighed. "Fahn has been working on something recently. Something overseen by that sadist Jorbell. He's been genetically engineering some creatures with samples taken from Granton and Lizardon. He's been splicing them into an army. An army of twisted creatures, each one capable of ripping a dozen men apart."

"Has he actually succeed?" Ujaki said with disgust.

Eril nodded. "I'm afraid so, yes. I don't know how many he has now. But if it's an excessive number...it could be unstoppable."

Mel turned toward one figure. "Robin? Can you and Liam stop and army that can't be stopped?"

Robin smiled. "We can stop them." He glanced toward the door, his ears picking up footsteps. "Be right back."

He quickly walked out onto the landing as he faced the man coming toward him. Liam's face was blank as he marched forward and Robin swallowed nervously. "Okay, now, listen, I know you're upset and all but I just wanted to------"

Liam threw his hands around him and embraced him tightly. "Thank ye," he choked. "Thank ye."

Robin was thrown, automatically returning the hug. "You're happy?"

"It was something ye should have done years ago, laddie," Liam said, backing up and wiping at his eyes. "She...she..."

"She what?" Robin demanded.

Liam looked at him. "She gave me her blessin'."

Robin stared at without a word.

"Well? Aren't ye going to say anything."

"I never thought I'd have this moment," Robin dully said.

"What moment?" Liam asked.

"That I could ever be speechless. Even for an instant."

Liam laughed and then looked at Robin. "I've got hers. What about ye?"

Robin clasped an arm on his shoulder and squeezed. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather see her with."

Liam nodded. "Thanks, laddie."

Robin's smile took an edge as he squeezed. "You know that if you hurt her, I'll truly hurt you."

"I'd expect no less," the leprechaun stated.

A rumble filled the village suddenly. It seemed as if both earth and sky were shaking as if with thunder yet there was nothing in the air to be a cause for it. People stopped what they were doing to stare up in confusion, all wondering what was going on. From out of the hut came Mel, Eril, Ujaki, Dullrena and Granton. From a hut a few trees down came Elizabeth, Lucy and Tarring, all staring about and trying to sense the source of the rumble.

"What the hell..." Robin started before a puff of smoke appeared behind him.

"Not hell, Robbie," Romino stated to the startled Eternals. "Just...my new charges making their big entrance."

*****

Light erupted around them. It seemed to come from everywhere, blinding everyone for a second. It flew from above, below, around the trees and huts, all flowing into a spot above a flat treetop. It seemed to congeal and gather until it was now in the form of a woman who Robin and Liam quickly realized was Kim. Her long blonde mane flowed behind her as her body was clad in what looked like a golden suit, tight pants and jacket showing her form off well, her wrists encased in yellow bracelets, her hands seeming to glow. At the center of her jacket was a symbol that looked like a glowing sun and colored yellow sunglasses covered her eyes.

"Apalla. The Queen of Light."

The sudden light burst had produced shadows which grew as the light faded. The shadows suddenly began to shift and flow, waves of darkness seeming to jump across space and to the spot next to Apalla. The shadows formed into a pool that began to grow until it was just over Kim's height, then began to take on human dimensions. It formed into Sean's body, the blackness continuing to cover him just as Kim's golden light covered her. It flowed into a dark suit with gloves, long cloak flapping behind him like a trailing shadow. His eyes were behind mirrored black glasses with a black fedora on his head

"Darknighter. The Sage of Shadows."

A streak of silver and black flashed by, whipping around the village at incredible speed. It ended on the trunk in the form of Marybeth. Her small form was suddenly bursting with power. She wore a tight pair of dark pants with silver pipes going down the legs with matching jacket and vest, silver streaks down the arms. A pair of tinted glasses encircled her black hair and covered her eyes. On the front of her vest was a planet-like symbol that seemed to glow like starlight. In her hands, she held a long staff, both ends crackling with energy.

"Astra. The Mistress of the Stars."

A whipping sound came from the side and everyone looked over to see Cal walking on air toward the trunk. He was clad in what appeared to be a dark leather overcoat, buttoned in front so as to seem like a single outfit, edges flapping behind him in the breeze. Odd runes and symbols covered his clothing, gloves over his hands, a fedora on top of his black hair. Dark loafers covered his feet with mirrored glasses over his eyes. In his hands was a staff about six feet long with a crystal ball at its head.

"Shamaran. The Master Mage."

From the other side of the village came an odd sound and every head turned to see a woman walking forward in mid-air. The shock of red hair rising above showed her to be Katie. Her form, more curvaceous than ever, was clad in a mixture of shades of green that formed a leaf-like khaki outfit over her body. A dark green band covered her forehead, holding back her hair with a small pair of dark spectacles hanging over her eyes. A pair of green boots covered her feet and what looked like brown and golden ringlets wrapped from her elbows to her fingers. As she walked, shards of wood flew away from the trees to form a walkway before her. Rocks rose from the ground far below to continue it. At one point, as she walked above a small pond, geysers of water blasted upward and she walked on top of it to reach the trunk.

"Elementra. The Fury of Nature."

A shape seemed to whip around the trees, from one to the other. It crawled, it leapt, it soared from tree to tree, somersaulting about until he landed next to Elementra. He rose up, showing himself to be Nicky. His body seemed more athletic, clad in a dark brown khaki outfit, sleeves seeming to bulge with muscles. A pair of holsters on his side held two pistol-sized crossbows and a whip could be seen on a belt around his waist. What looked like a form of hunting visor sat across his eyes and a dark green hunting cap over his hair.

"Pretor. The Pride of the Wild."

A hissing came from above and eyes turned upward to see Shirley hanging from what looked like a small hot-air balloon. She dropped to her feet and rose, a wide smile on her face. She looked like she was wearing oversized sunglasses and her outfit was almost impossible to comprehend. It wasn't just that it kept shifting colors and moved from plaid to striped to checkered to a dozen other patterns. It was also that it seemed to shift in style. In the time it took her to step next to the others, it had changed from a tuxedo to a pantsuit to a Jedi robe to what looked like an outfit out of a Merchant Ivory film, the colors and patterns shifting and seeming to go with her wild, multicolor hair.

"Imator. The Dreamweaver."

The seven suddenly parted to reveal an eighth figure. No one knew where he had came from but there was no mistaking the menace he gave out. He was clad in dark gray armor that was form-fitting, giving him free movement but looked dark and heavy all the same. His hands were in gauntlets that showed a couple of nasty looking spikes, his broad shoulders encased in metal and his face was covered by a dark gray helmet riddled with small spikes, a noseguard cutting it down the middle. Also on display was a bevy of hand weapons from his sword to daggers to throwing stars, all ready to be used.

"Soldar. The Gladiator."

*****

The newly formed Pantheon stood there, drawing in the attention and awe of everyone in the village. Save for the two faeries who slowly turned and glared at the man behind them.

Romino just smiled, raised his eyebrows and in a puff of smoke, vanished.

<Oh, Gods, what has he unleashed?> Robin groaned telepathically.

Liam shrugged. <Hell, don't look at me, laddie. He's your brother.>

*****

Part eighteen: In which more allies arrive while tensions rise higher.

Caverns underneath Sunnydale
May 25th, 1999 - 0845 Hours PST

Ulrich's eyes slowly blinked open and he let out a moan. He shook his head and tried to move a hand but couldn't. He realized he was tied to a chair with very tight ropes. He looked around, seeing the dim surroundings and knowing he was in a cave of some sort. He soon became aware he wasn't alone. All around him were vampires and an assortment of demons, all muttering amongst themselves and growling. Several looked over at Ulrich was lavacious expressions, a couple licking their lips. He shuffled in his seat, working against his bonds, even though he knew there was no chance of breaking free.

"Relax, padre," a female voice broke in. "Just sit back and enjoy the show."

Ulrich looked up and his eyes widened as he saw Roz calmly standing in the middle of the demon pack with a wide grin on her face. "You're front row and center for the end of the world," the woman said as she stepped forward. "Consider yourself honored."

Ulrich shook his head. "Roz...What are you doing?"

"Well, here's the long and short of it," Roz remarked, crossing her arms. "I'm the psycho who's planning to destroy the world, was going to do it last night but that Summers bitch outwitted me but I've managed to get a hold of the crystal so at midnight, I'm opening the Hellmouth." She raised an eyebrow. "That about cover it?"

Ulrich blinked, his jaw agape. "How...Why?"

"She has her reasons," a deep voice intoned. "As do I." Ulrich turned his head and his jaw dropped lower as he watched Garrow step forward. "Conrad?" he choked. "What....what are you doing?"

"What I think best for humanity, Ulrich," the priest stated in a flat tone.

Ulrich looked around the cavern, taking in the creatures before returning his gaze to his friend. "Conrad...these are demons. How can they do what's best for humanity?"

"By ridding the world of it," Garrow replied, his eyes flashing with a conviction Ulrich had never seen before.

Ulrich swallowed. "Conrad...you're a priest!"

"Was would be the operative term here," Roz put in. "After all, the good Father here was kicked out of the Church after..." She pursed her lips. "How did they put it? Inappropriate conduct with some of the younger members of your clergy?"

Ulrich stared at her in denial, then looked to Garrow, his face pleading for his old friend to tell him the woman was lying.

Garrow simply shrugged. "I'm only human."

Ulrich didn't know what was more horrifying: The realization that a man he had counted as a friend for more than twenty years was a secret pedophile or that he made no defense about it. He closed his eyes and shook his head. "Conrad...whatever you have done...You can't actually be planning to destroy the world."

"Why not?" Garrow said. His face was expressionless as he went on. "Come on, Ulrich. You've seen the way the world is now. Corruption, decadence, women with women, men with men...you work with such a gay person. Drugs, poor family unit, immorality reigns, belief in God so much smaller than it once was." He shook his head. "We've reached a nadir, old friend. The only thing to do is to wipe it all out and start anew."

Ulrich set his jaw. "I believe only one being has that right."

"That would be me," Roz said with a grin. "Don't worry, Padre. Out of respect to you and Garrow's friendship, I'll let you stick around to watch the show."

"You'll never get that far," Ulrich bit out. "Never. They'll stop you."

Roz laughed. "Oh, I'm sure they'll give it the old university try. But they won't win. They never win against me."† She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small cell phone, dialing in a number as she walked away from Ulrich. After a moment, the other end picked up and a tired male voice spoke. "Hello?"

"WHASSSSSUP!!!!!"

*****

Steven St. Wolf's Home
0850 Hours PST

Steve groaned and rubbed his eyes as he sat up in the bed. Buffy was immediately up as well, both still dressed as they had been the night before. It had been a long night and they had only been able to lay down for a quick nap a half-hour earlier.

Steve glared down as he spoke. "What do you want, Roz?"

"Just wanted to see how you all were," the alien stated. "Oh, and I don't think I have to tell you what a waste it would be to try and trace this. As your magic brigade have no doubt figured out by now, I've got my ways of keeping hidden."

Steve hated to admit it but she was right. Willow, Jenny, Amy and Giles had been doing all the spells they could to scry along Sunnydale and find Roz but all their efforts had been for naught. "What do you want?" he repeated.

Roz sounded quite cheerful as she spoke. "Well, St. Wolf, here's the deal. I know you're putting some big group together to try and stop me, calling in all those allies of yours. I'm betting you've figured out what I'm after and am planning to try and attack me and my troops before nightfall."

"The thought had crossed my mind," Steve dryly said.

"Well, uncross it," Roz retorted. "Here's the rules. You and your guys come after me only when I'm ready to make my move at midnight. You try to sneak in early attacks...and it won't be pretty."

"What will you do?" Steve demanded.

"Oh...maybe kick off a new season early. As in nuclear winter."

"You're bluffing."

"Ask Zev," Roz retorted. "He'll tell you it'd be very easy for me to hack into some defense systems and set a few missiles off."

"Then why don't you?" Steve asked.

"Because that way...I don't get to see the blood spurt," Roz intoned. "Besides, I want to save myself for the main event. But make no mistake, St. Wolf. I know where you live. I know where your people live. And I know where their families live. You press me...I press back." Her eyes lit up. "So, see you at midnight." With that, she hung up.

Buffy looked over at her lover and frowned. "What did she want?"

"Just to laugh at us," Steve answered. He shook his head. "This could be bad. Really bad."

Buffy rubbed at his shoulder. "We'll get through it. We always do."

Steve nodded. "I just hope our force is enough."

Buffy smiled. "Hell, just let Faith and Shaw at her, they'll do the job alone."

"I wish that was true," Steve grimly intoned. "I truly do."

*****

Joyce Summers' Home
0903 Hours PST

Joyce rubbed at her eyes as she stood by the stove. She had only slept a few hours during the chaos of the night before but felt it important she be up now. She knew a good breakfast would be an important component for the upcoming battle and so felt it was her duty to do her best.

She heard footsteps and looked up to see Zev enter. The alien was still wearing the suit from the previous night, which still looked rather immaculate on him. He looked at Joyce who was busy scraping some eggs in a pan before her. "What are you doing?"

"Breakfast," Joyce said. "I've got some waffles going in the toaster, if you want."

"I'll try something else," Zev asked.

Joyce paused to look at him. "Um...forgive a foolish question but...can you eat? Our food, I mean?"

A tiny smile played on Zev's face. "Most humanoid species tend to have the same digestive systems," he informed her. "My planet's atmosphere was quite similar to yours. So, yes, I can eat most of your foods." He shrugs. "I don't know how my cooking would be able to go down your throats, though..."

"WHERE IS HE?!"

Zev let out a yell as he rubbed his ears. "Damn it, have to remember to adjust my hearing level," he muttered to himself. "What the hell was that?"

Joyce sighed. "I think it was your little knockout job coming awake."

Shaw burst into the kitchen, her eyes aflame and focused on Zev. "You..." She hissed as she stormed forward. "You..."

Zev remained perfectly calm, showing no fear at Shaw but Joyce stepped forward, arms crossed and looking right at Shaw. "Shaw Hunter," she said. "Calm down this instant. I am not going to have you starting a fight with Zev under my roof, understood?"

"Fine," Shaw bit out, still glaring at Zev. "We shall go outside."

"Shaw," Joyce said in a tone that made the Harper look at her. The human narrowed her eyes at the elf. "I mean it."

Shaw stared at her for a long moment before backing away. Zev glanced at Joyce, obviously showing respect at her ability to defuse the elf's rage. Joyce kept her gaze hard on Shaw as the woman crossed her arms before her and glared right at Zev. "I do not like being assaulted in such a matter," she bit out.

"I know we've only just met," Zev intoned. "But somehow, I highly suspect you'd dislike being dead even more."

Shaw's eyes narrowed at him. "I was attempting to save a man I consider a father from danger."

"Considering you didn't know where he was, how many demons were with him and that you were flushed with anger and not thinking straight, I doubt you would have been much salvation," Zev said, not backing down an inch. "The others understood that, they were trying to hold you back. I simply saved them the effort of having to put you down themselves."

Shaw's nostrils flared. "I did not need you to accost me in such a manner! I would have handled myself!"

Zev raised an eyebrow. "Strange. I would have thought the fact you were only half-human would mean you were more intelligent than everyone else here. My mistake."

"Do not insult those I count as my kin," Shaw bit out.

"If that includes those fools Harris and Chase, I'd say your family tree is worse than mine."

Shaw stepped forward, blood in her eye but was once more blocked by a resolute Joyce. "Shaw. Don't." *First an alien and a dog, now an alien and a half-elf. When did my life stop being normal?*

Shaw glanced over at Joyce, her eyes flashing with anger. "Joyce...he..."

"Saved you from making a big mistake," Joyce said. "Shaw, honey, I know you're upset about Ulrich. And you're still angry over what Roz did to you. But Zev is right. Going off in that attitude all alone would have gotten you hurt or worse." Joyce threw Zev a quick glance. "Now, while I will admit he went a little far, Zev did end that threat quickly and efficiently. Plus, if nothing else, you managed to get some sleep, which is something we're all going to need for what Steve's planning."

"I hope it involves sending that bitch to whatever Hell is reserved for her kind," Shaw hissed.

"Surton is what we called it," Zev calmly put in. "Your typical hell, fiery pits, agony for the lower forms, all the regular tomfoolery watched over by the Shadow Lord Guafit. A fitting place for her."

"I agree," Shaw said. She closed her eyes. "I cannot believe...That she used me like that..."

"I'm sorry for that," Zev said, softening just a bit. "I truly am. My sister...hurting people comes easily to her."

Shaw shook her head. "I just cannot believe I did not see it..."

"Shaw, enough of this," Joyce said. "No more recriminations on how she used you. We know she did. We know it hurt. And we know that if you don't stop beating yourself up about it, you're going to be in no shape to do what needs to be done. That includes saving Ulrich."

Shaw went silent for a long moment. She then turned and headed out of the kitchen with a drawn face. Zev looked at Joyce carefully. "That girl has issues."

"That 'girl' has been through a hell of a lot in her time," Joyce snapped. "She has lost family, lost her home, spent years cut off from everyone, cut off from her own emotions and just had a woman she put her trust into rip her apart." She raised her eyebrows. "I would think you could relate to that."

Silence reigned as she returned to her cooking while Zev pondered her words. He saw the way Joyce was observing him and frowned. "What is it?"

"Nothing," she said. "You just remind me of someone."

"Who?"

"Buffy."

"Your daughter?"

"Yes." She paused and shook her head. "Well, actually, this Buffy wasn't my daughter."

Zev's brow furrowed. "This will be interesting to hear." He leaned on the counter as Joyce turned to him.

"Are you familiar with the concept of alternate realities?" she asked.

Zev surprised her by nodding. "Yes. In fact, I've even been to a world that acts as a terminal to various realities."

Joyce blinked in amazement. "Wow. Something like that exists?"

"Yes. It's funny, really," Zev elaborated. "People generally could care less about seeing realities where various historical events went a different way, either for the better or worse. But give them a chance to see a different outcome to a sports event of some sort and they're falling over themselves to get there."

Joyce sniffed. "Let's hope word on that doesn't get out or Chicago and Boston will be emptied in no time." She stirred the eggs a big in her pan as she went on. "Well, a few months ago, some people came from a reality where Buffy never came to Sunnydale. Willow and Xander were vampires, things were so different." She paused, remembering the event. "One difference was that in that world...I was dead. And Buffy....the Buffy I met...was so cold, so dead inside, like her spirit had been turned off."

"Your point?" Zev quietly asked.

Joyce looked him in the eye. "When you first came into my shop, I was surprised to see that same sort of deadness in your eyes. Like your spirit was gone. But then, over the dinner, I saw you open up again." She took a deep breath. "Look, Zev. I do like you. I did over the dinner. But...as much as I like to think of myself as open-minded...dating an alien is something I've never done before."

"I understand," Zev said. "Frankly, it's new for me as well. I'm usually not so..." He paused, as if contemplating the right words. "Forward to a woman I have just met. I don't know what the next few hours will bring. Indeed, it's quite possible we'll all be dead before the next sunrise." He looked up at her. "But if we do survive...perhaps we could try dinner again. And this time, we can be honest with each other."

Joyce softly smiled. "A man who wants to be honest with a woman he's just met. You really aren't from around here, are you?"

*****

Shaw was muttering angrily under her breath in her native tongue when Amy entered the living room. She saw the pacing Harper and knew it was bad. "Hey, Shaw," she called out.

Shaw looked at her and the Amazon witch could see the anger in the Harper's eyes. "Whoa. Dial it down a bit from homicidal rage, Shaw."

Shaw merely shook her head, her nostrils flaring a bit as she felt rage enclose on her spirit. "I simply cannot believe...that she did this to me! That I never saw she was using me!"

"Shaw, she had us all fooled," Amy told her cousin in a gentle voice. "You can't take it personally."

"The hell I cannot!" Shaw snapped. "I trusted her, Amy! You know how hard it has been to put my trust in people, especially after what happened in New York. I put my trust in her by instinct, I saw her as much an outsider as I was when I first came. I told her things I had never told anyone outside the group and she pretended to care. She pretended she was my friend and I believed her. I...I had actually hoped she might stay in order to continue what I believed was a good friendship..." Shaw closed her eyes and shook her head. "And she was laughing at me all the time and treating me like a joke. She hurt me, Amy," she whispered in a hoarse voice. "She truly did."

Amy moved over to rub at Shaw's shoulders. "I know, Shaw. Believe me, I'm just as upset with her as you are and I know you're worried about Ulrich too. We're going to stop her. Believe that."

Shaw nodded. "I do." She looked back up at Amy with a resolute expression. "Just as I know what I have to do to her." She turned and began to walk off.

"Um, Shaw?" Amy piped up with a touch of nervousness. "What...what are you planning to do?"

"Whatever it takes," was the cold reply.

"What does that mean?"

"I think that should be obvious."

Amy swallowed. "Shaw..."

"Amy, I will spell this out to you very plainly. Roz, because of me, because of us, now has the power necessary to open the Hellmouth and destroy everything. If she opens the Hellmouth, we are the first and only thing standing between whatever comes out and the end of the Earth. Roz is the one who has the power to do it. If she is removed, then the threat is ended."

"What do you mean by 'removed?'" Amy softly asked.

Shaw turned away from her and began walking off. "I need not explain *that* to you."

Amy's eyes widened as her fears were confirmed. "Now, wait a minute..."

Shaw spun on her heel, her face flushed as she glared at her cousin. "We may not HAVE a minute!" she hissed. "Every second we waste here is a second that brings us closer to the destruction of everything I hold dear, and I will not allow it to happen again!"

Amy blinked in confusion. "You won't allow what?"

"To cause the deaths of those I love, damn you!" Shaw yelled. "Kadali, my grandparents...I will not allow it to happen again! If I have to sacrifice myself, so be it, but I will not lose my loved ones because of my idiocy ever again!"

Amy found herself taking a step back, shocked by the look of desperation on Shaw's face, the angry tears in her eyes and the fact she was practically frothing at the mouth. "Shaw," she very slowly began. "I never thought I'd say this but...You're scaring me."

Shaw jerked back, her face now looking stricken. She looked at Amy for a long moment, then turned and began marching away, throwing one comment over her shoulder. "Now you know how I felt about myself for the first six months I was here."

Amy watched her go, fear growing in her stomach that her cousin was setting off on a dark path. *Oh, Goddess, Robin...I miss you...*

*****

Steven St. Wolf's Home
0925 Hours PST

A loud knocking on the door ended with Steve opening it to show Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Jax Briggs on the other side. "Ah, nice to actually see this town in the daylight," Johnny remarked as they stepped inside. He wore a nice pair of designer jeans, shirt and jacket with tie, removing his trademark sunglasses and sliding them into a front pocket.

"Welcome to a typical fun day on the Hellmouth," Buffy intoned as she walked down the hallway to the foyer.

"Typical day for us involves guns, grenades and at least a half-dozen dead bodies," Sonya said. She and Jax wore dark pants with jackets and t-shirts, each carrying a bag crammed with as much weaponry as they could bring. Buffy and Steve both saw how Sonya and Johnny kept close to each other and shared a secret smile.

"Okay, what's the sitrep?" Sonya demanded in a clipped tone.

"We've got some major demonic activity going down soon," Steve told them. "I'm waiting for the rest to get here before we take action."

"What rest?" Jax asked.

"Oh, no one special," Buffy said with a smile. "Just the Order of the Grail, the Highlanders, the world's oldest man, the Amazon queen and her lover, The Mystic Knights and more swords than you can swing...well, a sword at."

Sonya took a moment to gather that before shaking her head. "This is not what we were trained for."

"Get used to it," Steve told her in a flat tone. "You're a Marine so adapt."

"He's got you there," Johnny smirked.

"Shut up."

Steve closed his eyes. *God help me, Robin was right. They are the adult Xander and Cordelia.*

Jax leaned in to his partner. "You really think we can work with this guy?"

"Never a failure in a good American strategy, Jax," Sonya pointed out.

"Sonya," Johnny interceded. "Three words. "George Armstrong Custer."

A flash of light filled the living room beside them. Before anyone could even wander and look, Aideen marched out with Torc, Rhoan, Diedre, Angus and Ivar behind her. "Relax all, the saviors of the world have arrived," Angus announced while throwing out his arms.

Buffy closed her eyes. "We are sooo in trouble..."

*****

1024 Hours PST

The moment Willow and Oz entered the living room where the team was gathered, Buffy knew things were getting worse. "Oh, crap, now what?"

Willow ran a hand through her hair, her face showing exhaustion as well as some numb disbelief. "I just ran an Internet check on Garrow," Willow said. "And it's not good."

"How?" asked Shaw who had just come up.

"It seems he was cast out of the Church for suspicion of taking advantage of kids."

"How old?" Steve asked with a hard look.

"About eight to ten years," Willow sighed. "Male and female."

"Son of a bitch," Buffy whispered.

"That's not all," Oz interjected. "Seems he was into these rants about how man is corrupt and doesn't deserve the world."

"Well, they always say know whereof you speak," Xander observed.

"Which explains how you and your girlfriend can talk about idiocy," Zev remarked.

"Apparently, they didn't want the scandal so it was hushed up and Garrow dropped out of sight," Willow went on. "But word has it was on a list of possible excommunications."

"Shit!" Buffy hissed. "Guy's been in on this ever since he came to town!"

"And you're just now figuring this out?" Zev snorted. "Jurden, why couldn't I have landed on a planet with an intelligent species?"

*****

1156 Hours PST

The Buzz cut through Steve, Randi and the Knights, all looking up and toward the door. Xander marched to it, opening it up and nodding to the group on the other side. "Come on in and join the fun."

Duncan Macleod, Connor Macleod, Maxine, Richie Ryan, Amanda and Methos all entered, glancing at the others already gathered.

"Duncan and Connor Macleod of the Clan Macleod," Steve said by introductions. "Meet Rhoan, Diedre, Angus, Ivar, Torc and Aideen."

"Amanda," Angus said with a smile.

"Angus." Amanda was not smiling back. "I swear, taking your head right now is so tempting..."

"Aw, come on. You can't still be mad about that incident in Monte Carlo."

"You left me half-naked in a casino while absconding with the jewels I was after!"

"Now, it was only the top half..."

"I like this guy already," Duncan chuckled as Amanda threw him a glare.

Methos sighed deeply before his eyes went to Torc. "Well, well, Torc, you young fool!"

The Knights all exchanged confused glances as Torc groaned. "How old are you to be able to call Torc young?" Rhoan asked.

"Old enough to envy you younger Immortals who can pinpoint their birthdate using the modern-day calendar," Methos dryly said.

"And how old is that?" Diedre asked.

A tiny smile came to Methos' face. "Oh, old enough to be your Gods-only-know-how-many-greats-grandfather."

The 1400-year-old princess raised an eyebrow. "I highly doubt that."

"Well, believe this," Methos went on. "I'm the only Immortal ever to drink Torc under the table six nights in a row."

"That was only five," Torc argued. "The sixth didn't count..."

"Because it was a bar brawl and you go knocked on the head with a mug of mead. You still fell asleep because of a drink, it counts."

"So..." Ivar said, looking as confused as the rest of the Knights. "How old are you?"

Methos looked up. "Well, best guess scenario, rounding off, giving or taking a century or two, three at the most-------"

"HOW OLD ARE YOU?!" The Knights yelled.

Methos smiled. "Five thousand."

The Knights all stared at him in disbelief. "The only possible five thousand year old Immortal would be Methos," Rhoan softly stammered.

He extended a hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Not even Angus could come up with anything to say as they just stared in shock at the man. Methos chuckled as he looked over at Torc. "Well?"

Torc grumbled as he rummaged through his pockets and pulled out his wallet. "I thought I taught them better than that," he muttered as he fished out a twenty and handed it to the smirking Immortal.

Aideen smiled as she leaned in to her lover. "Relax," she whispered into Torc's ears. "I'll tell you what I did to him back in 310. It'll cheer you back up."

*****

Joyce Summers' Home
1325 Hours PST

Joyce peered through the keyhole and widened her eyes in surprise. She moved back to open the door and look at the four people on the other side. "Fox, Dana! I didn't expect other company with you."

Dana Scully gave Joyce a nice smile and nod, as did Fox Mulder. Dana gestured to the two women behind them. "Joyce, this is my sister Melissa and Tessa Santiago."

"Pleased to meet you," Joyce said, shaking hands with the strong redhead and the exotic Latin beauty. "What are you doing here?"

"We didn't know if Steve would be here or at his house," Mulder explained. "Is he here?"

Joyce shook her head. "No, last I heard, he was at his home briefly. I've got Amy, and Kendra upstairs. The others are handling their own affairs before the meeting."

"I was half-tempted to go to Giles' place first and ask him if he was still Steve," Mulder said with a smirk.

Joyce sighed. "It was too much to hope you'd feel sorry for us."

"Oh, no, we felt sorry for you," Melissa clarified. "It's just that we felt a hell of a lot more relieved it wasn't us."

"Where's Buffy?" Dana asked.

"Well, apparently, she and Steve went to Willy's to get information. Shaw and Faith went with them."

"Well, that will be good news for lovers of sadism and witty one-liners," Mulder dryly observed.

*****

Willy's
1330 Hours PST

The door to the bar banged open and Willy immediately blanched as he saw Buffy, Steve, Shaw and Faith enter the bar. "Okay, Willy," Buffy said, her voice tight. "I want to know whatever you know and you'd better------"

"She was here last night, she told them she was going to open the Hellmouth at midnight, she got them fired up and she left," Willy said in a tired tone.

Everyone stared at him and he shrugged. "Hey, you were going to beat it out of me eventually. I figured I'd save myself some time and trouble------"

Buffy's fist rocketed into his face, sending him stumbling back. "The hell was that for?" Willy cried out as he grasped his bleeding chin.

"That's for cutting off my fun," Buffy snapped.

"So, Roz is riling the demons up?" Steve asked.

Willy nodded as he rose up. "Yeah, they were buying her drinks after she bragged about how she played you guys. Man, when she said how she ripped Shaw apart-----" He broke off as he realized the object of his speech was right there. "Oh, shit."

Shaw stepped forward, her face blank and calm but one could see the obvious rage in her eyes. "What else did she say, Willy?" she calmly asked.

Willy gulped. "Well....um....."

"I will find out one way or another," Shaw said in a voice that left no doubt she could back that statement up. "You might as well tell me now."

Willy swallowed harder before speaking. "She said...She said she was going to keep you alive, after making you watch her kill the others. She was going to lock you in a cell where you'd be raped 24-7 by demons. And that the cell would be plastered with pictures of her so you'd always know who did this to you and what an idiot you were." He closed his eyes and prepared for the blow he was positive was coming.

When it didn't come, he peeked his opens open and saw Shaw still standing there. The others seemed as confused as he was to her lack of reaction. "Um, Shaw?" Faith asked. "Aren't you pissed?"

"He is only the messenger, Faith," Shaw pointed out. "I see no point in wasting my energy on him. Not when I can use it on the one who deserves it." She paused as a thought struck her. "Oh, William?"

"Oh, shit," Willy whispered, sure the punch was coming. "Yeah?"

Shaw reached into her pocket and Willy stiffened. He let out a long breath as he saw her remove a wad of bills and throw them on the counter. "If I remember correctly, you have excellent Scotch, yes?"

Willow slowly nodded. "I did, but those Irish guys destroyed it all last month."

Shaw cursed under her breath and then sighed. "Then give me a tab for the amount."

Willy blinked. "You want a tab?"

The tiniest hint of a smile crossed Shaw's face. "I would think this tells you who *I* think will be left standing after this battle."

Willy let that sink in, then nodded. "Can't argue with that logic."

The four turned and began walking out, Faith's face tight. "That bitch..." she whispered. "That miserable bitch!"

"Calm down, Faith," Steve told her.

"I can't help it, Steve!" the Slayer snapped. "I'm just pissed that I let her con me like that! I can't believe I fell for it!"

"Neither can I," Shaw agreed.

Faith shook her head. "You're a caring person, Shaw. I'm a street kid, bitter and cynical. I'm supposed to know better. And I didn't."

Shaw was silent for a moment before speaking. "I spent fifteen years as a cold-hearted bitch. I think that gives me some experience on the subject."

Faith paused before nodding. "Very true..."

*****

Steve's Home
1403 Hours PST

"So, is this normal?" Tessa asked as she, Mulder and the Scully walked up to the Wanderer's home. "To just gather together at his call for a massive threat?"

"Amazing how routine it's gotten," Mulder remarked just as the four felt an increased Buzz strike them. Tessa instinctively moved a hand to her blade but the others seemed quite calm. "Don't worry," Dana told her. "It's all friends here."

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Mulder smirked. The door opened before them to reveal Giles motioning them in. "Come on," the Briton said. "Jenny and I just got here."

The four Immortals entered, seeing Larry and Oz coming down the stairs, both holding boxes of weaponry. "Don't you have school?" Tessa asked with a frown.

"We're taking an off-day," Larry explained. "Amazing how common the Apocalypse excuse comes up around here..."

"Beats the lame excuses you came up with, Dana," Melissa laughed at her sister.

Mulder raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Why, Dana Scully. Don't tell me you were the wild child in high school."

"Come on, Fox," Melissa teased. "I'm sure you know how wild she can get."

Dana was throwing ugly looks at her sister and husband when the quartet entered the family room to see the gathering forces. "Oh, Goddess, not you people," Dana groaned at seeing the Knights. Mulder's reaction was pained as well, Melissa's was curious and Tessa's was...surprised recognition. "Maria?"

Diedre's eyes widened in surprise as she came forward. "Tessa! Good to see you again."

"I don't believe it..." Tessa said with surprise. "You're Immortal."

Both Scully sisters were looking at the duo in confusion. "You two know each other?" Dana asked.

Diedre smiled at her. "Remember you asking where I learned the two-handed Spanish dueling style?" She nodded at Tessa. "She and I learned together in Spain a century ago."

"You were the only one who could beat me," Tessa noted.

"Well, I did have 1300 years on you," Diedre observed.

Tessa's eyes widened. "You're that old? Where are you from?"

"I told you back then."

Tessa laughed. "Maria, Kells is just a legend."

"Well, then I'm the Princess of a legend."

Tessa's face fell into confusion. "What?"

The Irishwoman extended a hand. "Diedre, daughter of Conchobar, Princess and rightful heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Kells."

Tessa just stared at her for a long moment, then let out a laugh. "Next you'll be telling me you're a faery."

"You rang?" Aideen said as she moved next to the Spaniard.

Mulder couldn't help grinning as he motioned to the Knights. "Ladies, meet Rhoan, Diedre, Angus, Ivar, Torc and Aideen. Guys, this is Dana's sister, Melissa and her teacher, Tessa."

"Sister?" Rhoan frowned, looking at the Scullys. "As in, you thought you had the same mother, grew up together all your lives, sisters?"

"Yep," Melissa said with pride.

"Two Immortals getting into the same family?" Angus asked with doubt. "Do you realize the odds on that?"

"Well," Mulder began. "I'd imagine it's slightly below the odds of five friends and fellow Knights all not only being Immortal but dying at the same time."

"Thanks, bro-in-law," Melissa nodded. She paused as the door opened and Joyce entered with Zev, Kendra and Randi in tow. The Slayer and the Immortal both held boxes of ammo and weapons while Joyce and Zev were carrying in some coolers. "Just some sandwiches and drinks," Joyce explained. "I figured you could use them."

"Always the den mother," Mulder said with a smile. He glanced at Zev. "Is this...?"

Zev nodded. "Yes. I am."

"Wow," Richie said. "You...you're actually an alien?"

"Well, it's a matter of perspective, my boy," Zev stated. "From my point of view, you're the alien."

Methos was the only one who didn't seem that impressed. "An alien? You're letting anyone into this bunch now, aren't you?"

Zev fixed a glare at him. "And you are?"

"Methos." The oldest Immortal figured it didn't do any harm to divulge his real name.

Zev nodded softly. "Ah yes. I've heard of you."

That got Methos surprised. "You have?"

"Yes, the stories of the Horsemen have been recorded in many of the ancient documents I perused when I first arrived," the alien stated. He sniffed. "Of course, I see it as the height of arrogance that you would take on the mantle of Death."

Methos narrowed his eyes. "I've seen more death than any man on this planet. And beyond it. Ask the Goa'Uld."

Zev's eyes went wide. "You're *that* Methos?" he gasped, truly amazed and impressed.

Methos winked at Duncan. "It pays to advertise."

"You know, it's strange," Zev remarked in an offhand fashion. "In my culture, Death was a dark and cloaked figure, eternally shrouded. In most cultures I've come across, it's generally been the same, a skeletal figure in robes with an aura of darkness and terror."

"That's how we see him," Duncan agreed.

"I met a survivor of one rampage my sister made," Zev continued. "He'd just survived the shockwave and was buried for a time. When I dug him out, he'd claimed he'd seen Death. Only she was a little girl, lightly skipping along as she took the souls of the recently departed for herself. And she giggled, as a child would. I think it was because she enjoyed what she was doing. There really aren't that many people who can say that, are there?"

He turned and walked away, the others staring after him. "That man," Connor started. "Has some serious issues."

"Don't tempt him to show you why he got them," Larry remarked.

The Immortals all tensed as they felt the Buzz once more and the door opened to reveal Steve, Buffy, Shaw and Faith. Steve nodded to the new arrivals and exchanged a warm handshake with Duncan. "Good to have you guys here," he said. "This promises to be a nasty one."

"Just what I love to hear," Methos dryly remarked. He was a bit put out when both Shaw and Faith brushed past him, both with hard expressions on their faces. "What crawled up and died in them?"

"A alien bitch who's soon about to do the crawling," Buffy bit back as she and Steve let the crew into the living room.

"Well, how about that?" Sonya said, looking at Shaw's haircut. "You took my advice."

Shaw brushed at it while giving a light glare to Amy. "I was...persuaded it would be best."

"Well, guess we call your cousin a warm-up then?"

Amy groaned as snickers abounded at the image of Shaw, in her body, getting a haircut. "Thanks a lot, Shaw," she muttered.

*****

Faith stalked her way up the stairs, muttering to herself, her mind filled with images of all the things she was going to do to Roz when she got the chance...

"You know it's not your fault."

Faith stopped and looked up to see Zev standing at the top of the stairs, his face concerned as he looked at her.

"How can-----" she started to say but he quickly cut her off.

"What she did, she did because she wanted to. You did nothing to be ashamed of, Faith. She's conned a lot of people before. Don't berate yourself for trying to trust someone. And don't let what she did keep you from trusting again."

Faith crossed her arms and looked at him. "So what do I do?"

Zev came down the stairs, pausing to pat her on the shoulder. "Your name, Faith. Have some of it."

Faith peered at him. "You sure you're an alien?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Just that the way you come up with all this philosophical stuff, I figured you had to be Irish like me."

Zev rolled his eyes. "Don't make me reevaluate my appraisal of you."

Faith winked at him as she walked past. "Ah, says a lot you like me best, Zevy. Can I call you Zevy?"

"Can I stop you?"

Faith just laughed and walked off while Zev shook his head. "I can't believe I had to crash on this planet," he muttered as he headed back down.

*****

Shaw was in her room, a large case spread out before her with her weapons. She picked each one up and carefully appraised it, stroking the blades and deciding which ones she would lay blessings on.

"Shaw?" The Harper turned to see Connor and Duncan standing in the doorway, concerned expressions on their faces. "Can we talk?" Duncan asked.

Shaw turned back to her case as she nodded. The two Macleods entered the room carefully, watching her. "Shaw, Steve and the others are concerned about you," Duncan started.

"And why is that?" Shaw did not turn.

"He told us you took the truth about Roz hard," Connor said. "He said you two were close and you talked a lot." Shaw still did not reply so Connor stepped forward and reached a hand toward her shoulder. As soon as his fingers grazed it, Shaw jerked away.

"Do not touch me there, Connor," she hissed.

"Why not?" he softly asked.

Shaw choked. "You know why. Both of you do."

Duncan's face softened, as did his eyes as he stepped up to join his clansman. "Yes, we do. We saw the tape, Shaw. We know that you saw the scars when you were in Amy's body."

Shaw turned toward them, anger and tears in her eyes. "So...everybody knows about me?"

"Only those who saw the master tape," Connor quickly corrected her.

"Fine." She turned back to her case. "I see no reason why I should be left out."

"Shaw, be honest," Connor pressed. "How are you handling it?"

She turned back to him, the anger still present in her eyes. "I have talked with Amy about it. Liam accepted it from the beginning, as have the others." She paused to swallow. "I suppose I prefer knowing the reality, rather than have an unrealistic mental image. I..." She closed her eyes. "It scared me, Connor. I knew they existed but I never realized just how they looked. I..." She choked a bit. "It showed me, truthfully, that I somewhat underestimated their acceptance of me." She opened her eyes and sighed deeply. "I hope I never take such a thing for granted."

Connor absorbed her words while Duncan spoke. "And what about Roz?"

Shaw's face tensed. "I told her everything, Duncan. I told her everything. How do you think I feel?"

"We can guess," Connor told her. "But you have to remember the world's at stake here. You do need to focus on teamwork here, rather than the threat posed by Roz. All right?"

Shaw was silent for several seconds before nodding. "I will do my best."

"We know you will," Connor said. He smiled. "And you know we'll kick your butt if we do."

*****

"We still have to wait for some others," Steve said. "The Grail Knights, Horace's folks, Sonja and Gabrielle, Jarod and Parker..."

"What is this, class reunion?" Richie asked.

"It's the Hellmouth," Buffy retorted. "This sucker opens and we're all in the shit."

"Ah, how I've missed the eloquence of Westerners," Ivar sighed as he sat on a chair, brushing at his suit. "You couldn't possibly have come up with a less graphic metaphor?"

"It may be short," a cold voice suddenly cut in. "But it does sum things up well."

Everyone started and spun around to see a figure step out of the shadows. One look at his blue garb and the mask covering his face and head and one thought was shared by all and spoken aloud by Angus.

"How does he bloody DO that?!"

*****

Part nineteen: In which Independence Day comes to Varra.

The Hills surrounding Varran

The air was tense around the capital city and for once, it wasn't because of the atmosphere. The tension was high as the forces gathered. Men and women, Pertusians and Granton, villagers and former soldiers. All were united for the battle to come. A battle that they know knew they could win. Not only because their cause was just and their fervor high. But also because they had some serious firepower on their side.

"Are they ready?" Eril asked Mel.

The younger man nodded. "As much as they'll ever be, I suppose. "What about us?"

"The same," the man replied. "I hope that we can all achieve our goal."

A bit of a distance away, Tarring had his head bowed, his hands around his cross as he silently prayed. "Lord. I know I promised long ago I would never take up arms against another man again. But I fear I may have to break that promise today. I pray for your forgiveness and hope you can understand I have to fight the save the lives of others. Please do not think less of me because of that."

*****

The rocky overhanging offered a terrific view of the capital that might have been quite romantic under the right circumstances. The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, casting multi-colored rays onto the city below. It was a spectacular dawn. One that would be the last many of those inside the city would ever see.

"Now is it me," Apalla started. "Or is anyone else realizing how we're nowhere freaked out as we should be?" She flexed one of her hands, seeing sparks of light flow between her fingers.

"I suspect it's Romino's work," Soldar solemnly intoned. He knelt down and scooped up a handful of dirt. He rubbed it between his palms as he rose up. "Probably to keep us from breaking down under such new abilities."

"Smart guy," Darknighter observed. "Considering how I can flow in between shadows and create weapons out of them, I think a little perspective helps."

"What I'd prefer is some communication," Soldar remarked. "We're going to be spread out around there. We need a way to stay in touch and coordinate efforts."

Astra gave her staff a twirl as she peered at the scene below. "I don't see any overt signs of droops. Looks like we've got surprise on our side."

Elementra looked at her with surprise. "You can see that far?"

Astra blinked as she realized what she had done. "Wow. I guess I can now." A smile broke over her face. "Groovy."

"So, what's the plan, bossman?" Darknighter asked Soldar.

"I'm working on that," the Immortal stated. He glanced to the side where Shamaran was standing, his head bowed and his hand moving over the crystal on top of his staff. "Cal, what areyou doing-----"

Shamaran spun around, his hand flung out and seven bolts of magical energy zipped forward. Each one touched one member of the Pantheon just under their left ear. Shamaran stepped back and nodded. <Everyone getting me okay on this?>

<WHOA!>

<Huh?!>

<The hell?!>

<Cooooool>

<What is this?> Soldar demanded.

<You wanted a way to keep in touch> Shamaran pointed out. <One telepathic spell to do the trick.>

<Now wait a minute> Pretor interjected. <I'm not comfortable with the idea of six people in my head all the time.>

<Doesn't work like that> Shamaran told him. <Just think about who you want to send your message to and think it to them. Try to be specific and not let any old thing pop----->

<Oh my god, you and Shirley slept together?!>

<Into mind....>

<Sorry, Sham.>

Soldar nodded and turned toward the city. <All of you stay here. I'll go first. Wait for my signal.>

<What will that be?> Pretor asked.

<You'll know.>

<That's what I'm afraid of.>

<So we get the signal> Apalla noted. <Then what?>

Soldar was already heading down the hill as he spoke. <Unleash Hell.>

There was a silence as the Pantheon watched him go. <Did anyone else just get goosebumps there?> Imator asked.

*****

The guardhouse was one of twelve overseeing the northern wall surrounding the city. It was a large shack with a group of ten soldiers. One calmly patrolled the wall, his face showing his boredom as his eyes scanned the horizon for signs of a threat he didn't think would actually come. He never heard so much as a footstep before Soldar's arm wrapped around his throat with his other hand at the base of his neck. A twist and a cracking sound went out. Dropping the dead guard to the ground, Soldar moved to the guardhouse.

There was a time to be subtle and there was a time to make a statement. Luckily, Maximus Decimus Meridas excelled at both. He raised a foot and kicked it forward, smashing the door in. He stepped inside, the guards all frozen in surprise at the sight of the armor-clad figure facing them. They all took out their weapons, moving into fighting positions as Soldar looked them over.

"I know what you're going to do," he announced. "I've fought this, in my head, approximately 2,957 times and I'm the only one leaving here with a pulse." He reached into his dark coat, pulling it open to show a small armory of knives, daggers, throwing stars and other assorted sharp instruments hanging in the lining. "If any of you have been issued suicide pills, I would highly recommend now to be an excellent time to swallow them."

*****

The small army that was the resistance was tense and ready, awaiting the moment to strike. At the head, Mel, Dullrena and Eril made a small trimunitive. "Do you truly believe trusting these humans is wise?" the woman asked.

"You've seen their power," Mel told her. "We need to soften up his forces first and they've got the ability to do it."

"Which does scare me a little," Elizabeth stated as she stepped up, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail. "That much power in hands like that..."

"They'll get the job done," Mel stated. "I know they will. We just need to follow their lead."

"All I want is to meet that torturer," Elizabeth said with ice in her tone. "I'm going to write that bastard a prescription."

Mel looked at her in amusement. "You've been waiting years to say something like that, haven't you?"

Elizabeth smiled.

*****

An explosion ripped through the quiet that had covered the area as the guardhouse blasted itself apart. A chain reaction began as one house after another along the wall suddenly exploded hurling debris and body parts in all directions.

<How the hell did he do that?> Shamaran marveled as the group stared into the sudden mayhem.

<Trade secrets, my son> Soldar's voice cut through the minds. <Elementra? Give us some cover.>

The red-haired woman nodded, then closed her eyes and let her mind drift. She could feel herself connecting with the planet around her. Its ground, its elements, its water, all that it was, she was. She could direct it. Not control it, one could never fully control nature. But she could give it a little push here and there when needed.

She raised up a hand and waved toward the sky as she made that push. The sky darkened, lightning suddenly flashing about. Wind began to whip through the city with short but hard bursts of rain.

<I believe it was Mark Twain who said 'Everyone always talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it'> Elementra observed. <About time someone proved him wrong.>

<Good work> Soldar observed. <Ready?>

<You kidding?> Darknighter replied, cracking his knuckles together. <I've been wanting to punch these assholes' brains out ever since we got here.>

<All right, folks> Shamaran announced, hefting his staff. <Let's show 'em how we do things in Chi-Town!>

And with that, the Pantheon swung into battle for the first time.

*****

Apalla paused at the edge of the cliff, instinctively taking a deep breath. <I can't believe I'm about to do this...>

There was a blur of blue-gray as Astra threw herself right off the cliff with a loud whoop, her staff held before her. She fell for twenty feet before rising up, flying through the air and spinning as she did. <Man, this is so damn cool!!>

Apalla rolled her eyes and, with one more deep breath, jumped off the cliff. She free-fell for a few minutes before her new instincts kicked in. Without even realizing she was doing it, she felt her body become lighter than air, flying as easy for her as running and in seconds had caught up to Apalla.

<Oh, God, you guys have gotta try this!> Astra said.

<I'll keep it in mind> Pretor replied.

<I need some of those other towers taken out> Soldar cut in as he ran along the gateway.<With a minimum of collateral damage.>

<Got it> Apalla nodded. <You ready, Astra?>

<Hey, just call me Maverick!>

<No, I'm Maverick. You're Goose.>

<He dies in the movie, remember? Maybe I can be Iceman.>

<Think Elementra has that one already> Apalla returned. She flew forward, her hair billowing behind her as her eyes zeroed in on one of the towers that Eril had informed them with guard garrisons. As she flew, she held up her hand, feeling the power build within her. She threw it outward, a blast of golden light erupting out and striking the tower right near the top. An explosion ripped open the top three floors, scattering debris about. Apalla could tell that the tower's inhabitants were already scattering in panic.

Behind her, Astra paused in mid-air, holding up her staff with one end pointed toward the tower before her. She squinted as she aimed, then unleashed a burst of blue energy from the end of her staff. It struck the tower at the third floor from the top, creating a sizeable hole. Astra resisted a grin as she blasted several more times, racking the tower with shocks.

*****

"What in the Great One's name is going on?" demanded a senior officer. His men were rushing forward, weapons out, into chaos. From out of nowhere, a gale was striking the city, blasting down troops and forcing most to seek shelter. The gate towers were aflame and an odd feeling of electricity was coming through the air.

The officer began to give orders. "Get men up there to put out those fires! Double the guard, advance on the palace and-----

That was as far as he got before the shadows around them suddenly reared up and attacked. The soldiers found themselves thrown about as the dark forms hurled them in all directions, piercing flesh with shadow blades and creating screams. From out of the darkness, Darknighter came forth, blasting one troop in the face with a punch, sending another flying across the street with a simple throw. He could sense, more than see, one soldier trying to strike from behind. With a thought, he sent a wave of shadow backward, smacking the man in the chest and sending him down and out. He looked around and let out a smile mostly hidden by shadow. <I love being me.>

He shot his head up as a roar came from above. He saw one of the troop transports flying above and nodded. <We got incoming. Anyone want to help me take 'em down?>

<I'll meet you there> Pretor said. He had been running at high speed down the street and with the bound of a gazelle leapt up and caught the edge of a building. He scurried up like a spider until he had arrived on the roof, the transport almost on top of him. He felt a blur of motion and turned to see Darknighter pool out of the shadows next to him. <Does that...hurt?>

<Nah. Feels pretty good, actually.> The two saw the transport coming. Pretor reached to his belt where his whip lay. He hefted and uncoiled it, letting it fly in one smooth motion. It easily wrapped around one of the pointed fantail of the transport and pulled him away. A mental command caused his whip to pull him up until he was next to the door.

Darknighter took a more unique route. He lifted his hand and from the underside of his wrist came a long black tendril that hooked onto the edge of the ship. He floated upward with it until he stood next to Pretor.

<Don't tell me> Pretor remarked. <This is a different kind of flying.>

<This is a different kind of flying.>

<You like "Airplane" too?"

<Hell, yeah!>

The two exchanged a nod, then hauled back and lashed out a foot apiece.

The troops inside all leaped back as the door came off, slamming into two of them. Pretor and Darknighter stepped inside, the former unwrapping his whip, the latter cracking his knuckles as shadows trailed behind him. "Thank you for flying Asshole Airlines," Darknighter spoke up.

"Please sit back, relax and enjoy your in-flight beating," Pretor added.

*****

By this point, the guards on the ground were beginning to organize and move through the streets. It was hard going due to the winds and the rain that seemed to zero in on them specifically. The explosions of light and energy high above didn't quite help either.

One patrol was moving to the gates when they met Imator stepping in their path, her clothing shifting to a wild leisure suit. "Hiya," she said with a grin.

Instantly, the soldiers raised their weapons at her. In response, Imator took out a whistle and blew on it. Out of nowhere, a black cat wearing a tiny derby hat merrily bounced along in front of the soldier's path. They stared at it in confusion. There was a whistling sound and a brick suddenly crashed out of the sky and onto one's head. Another brick fell, then another, taking out two more troops. Imator blew the whistle and the black cat once more danced before the startled troops still standing. A bowling ball smashed onto one's head. Then a boulder smacked onto another. Finally, a kitchen sink flew out and took down the last two.

Imator smiled at some confused citizens who had watched it all in amazement. "Tex Avery. Man was a genius."

<Ah, Imator?> Pretor's voice cut through her mind.

<Yeah?>

<Quick word on us in fights?>

<Sure. You and Darky having some fun up there?>

<In a way> Darknighter said as he punched down another trooper. <But could you stop the 'Batman' visual effects? It gets really annoying to punch a guy and have a sudden KAPOW! Or BLAM! Pop up.>

<Philistines.>

*****

Astra swung around one transport as it flew past, flipping in the air and aiming her staff. A blast of energy struck it on the rear, smoke pouring out as the transport wobbled. She remained upside down, floating as she watched it land on the roof of one building with a hard crash. She turned to see a group of soldiers trying to set up a firing squad one the roof of another building nearby. She twirled her staff and sent out a series of blasts that scattered them about. She let out along and loud laugh that showed she was having the time of her life.

Shamaran watched her and shook his head as he floated upward, his own staff held in his hands. <Funny, I figured she'd be the quiet one...> He held up the staff as he muttered an incantation, the words flowing to his mind with startlingly ease. The crystal at the top of his staff glowed and a wide arc of purple energy flowed outward. It settled around the outskirts of the city, forming a bubble of sorts around them. <Outer parts of the city are covered from debris, boss. The casualties have been cut down.>

<Good> Soldar said as he made it to the ground level. He could see a patrol of soldiers nearby and without breaking stride broke out his sword as well as an axe he pulled from his coat. He dived into the group, two of them dead before they even registered his presence. He spun about, slicing through them, ignoring their screams as he let out a command. <Any word from Robin and Liam?>

<Nope> Shamaran replied. <But I'm sure they've got it handled their way.>

<That's what worries me> Soldar sighed.

*****

"What in the Seven Hells is going on here?!" Fahn demanded as he burst into the monitor room. Easily the most high-tech place on the planet, it boasted several monitors showing black and white images of the city, including the strangers flying about and unleashing attacks on the soldiers.

"Where are my troops?" Fahn screamed as he watched another tower erupt in flames. "I want them out there, you hear me?"

"How many, sir?" a technician asked.

"ALL OF THEM!!" He spun toward Maro. "Call up the cells. Tell them to release the mutates."

Maro started. "Sire...they're not------"

"I don't care, I want them out there!"

*****

In the chambers below the palace, there was a groan of chains winding down and gates rising. Inside a large chamber were forty of the most horrific creatures imaginable. In size, they were roughly the same, about ten feet tall each. In body shape and composition, they differed radically. Some had scalish skin, like the Lizardon. Others were covered with hard rock like the Granton. Some seemed to mix the two, other looks somewhat more human, albeit freakishly muscled and with bodies twisted out of shape. They staggered forward, their faces more beast than humanoid, no actual minds, just twisted rage and a desire to destroy all they could see.

They rumbled forward, their only thought on their microscopic minds to attack anything they perceived as a threat. Before they could reach the gate to the outside, however, two figures materialized before them.

"Well, well, well," Liam said. "Always said steroid use could have dangerous consequences..."

"Let's eludicidate them on how dire," Robin said as held out a hand and let a blast of magic smack into the group. It sent two flying but the others stayed balanced.

"Ah," Liam grinned. "This will be fun after all."

*****

The explosions of the battle could be visible for miles, as could the figures of the Pantheon zipping about. "Have they weakened the defenses?" Dullrena asked.

"Well, it's more like they've completely destroyed them but yeah," Mel confirmed with a nod. He looked toward the waiting group. "Ready?"

"As we'll ever be," Eril stated.

Tarring crossed himself and whispered a soft prayer. Ujaki bowed his head as he did the same. Around them, the warriors began to raise up their weapons, sensing the time was near.

Mel took a deep breath and nodded. He headed forward, the army...*his* army...following right behind. He led them forward, hoping to hell he wasn't making a big mistake.

*****

<Boss, we've got the rebellion moving in.> Darknighter stated as he stood on one tower.

<Good> Soldar replied. <Someone give them the key to the city.>

<On it> Shamaran said as he floated forward, hanging in the air above the massive walls. He held up his staff, crystal pointed at the wall and incanted loudly. A blast of red energy ripped outward, striking the wall hard. It didn't seem that large and yet it created a massive explosion, hurling brick and mortar outward. However, before the debris could get too far, it smacked into a purple shield and slid away from the hole. <They're open, boss> Shamaran intoned.

<Let the true fun begin then.>

*****

"Where are those mutates?!" Fahn screamed as he marched along the monitor room, glaring at everyone he could see. "I want those....people torn apart!"

"We don't know, sir," Maro said, taking a step back from his ruler's fury. "They should have been there by now and we can't contact anyone down below."

"DAMMIT!" Fahn screamed as an alarm sounded. "Now what?!" He turned toward the monitors and his eyes opened in shock. Pouring through the massive hole was an army of humanoids, villagers, Granton and more, all heading toward the capital.†††

"What are they doing?" he asked, shocked at the sight.

"Well, sir," one technical ventured. "Offhand, I'd say they're coming to hack you up into tiny little pieces."

Fahn looked at him, pulled a knife out of his robes and stabbed the technician in the back. "Who asked you?" he demanded the dropping corpse.

"Um, sir, you sort of did," another technician pointed out. His reward for that observation was a stab in the chest.

Fahn whirled to his advisors. "Get them out. Every soldier we have, get them out there. And tell them to kill anything that gets in my way. I don't care who they are, I want them dead! Dead, do you hear me? Dead!"

Maro and Jorbell exchanged looks and immediately began to back away. They turned and marched out, leaving the ranting Fahn behind. "He's lost it," Maro said. "He's totally lost it."

"And now Melroy leads the rebellion we've feared," Jorbell said. "Martin, my friend, I think it's time we cut our losses and get out while we can."

"I fear you're right," Maro stated. "Well, there has to be a way to get back to Earth. Hopefully, we can find it before they realize we're gone."

With that, the two quickly stole away as their leader continue to rant at the oncoming army.

*****

Apalla did a backflip in mid-air, throwing out her hand to unleash another blast of light that smashed down to the ground. It hit right before a team of guards, sending them flying backward. She looked down one street and her eyes widened behind her glasses. <Ah, Imator?>

<Yo?>

<Okay. I can accept I'm seeing four turtles with weapons taking down a bunch of troops. But how come none of them are yelling "Cowabunga!" or anything?"

<Don't ask me, I got it from Astra.>

<I was using the original Turtles that Eastman and Laird created, the real ninja fighters, no stupid sayings or pizza fetish, no Dimension X freaks, I really don't know where they came upwith that----->

<Marybeth?>

<Yeah?>

<You *really* need a boyfriend.>

*****

Elementra floated herself down toward the area near the city's river. She could see a swarm of patrol boats rushing toward the town center, armed for bear and ready to disgorge reinforcements. She held up a hand, clenching it into a fist. Below, the water began to flow backward in waves, sweeping backward and toward the boats. The ones in front saw the water suddenly sweep toward them, too late to turn away. The ones in the rear tried to cut their speed and turn around but the wave washed over all of them, flipping them upside and sending them flying in all directions. Elementra opened her hand and the river became flat once more, guard spopping out of the water and gasping for breath. <I love being me.>

She looked beside her and was surprised to see Pretor hanging by her. <How did you----->

<You float on winds, I borrow a little hover activity> her husband answered. <Having fun?>

Elementra laughed. <God, this just feels...so....good!>

Pretor returned the laugh as he began to lower himself. <Keep it up, honey. Let's show these guys it's not wise to piss off nature.>

*****

Apalla flew over the river, a trail of light in her wake. She could see the battle becoming joined, the soldiers meeting the rebels head on with fights breaking out all over. She looked about, trying to find some of her teammates when a voice came to her mind. <Money to the mouth.>

Recognizing her partner, Apalla smiled. <What's up?>

<Got some punks trying to set up a cannon on the docks on the east side.>

Apalla maneuvered himself in that direction. <Deposit or withdrawal?>

<I want them withdrawn from the battle and deposited in the river.>

Nodding, Apalla swooped down, skimming over the surface of the river, leaving a golden reflection behind. She could see the dock in question with the soldiers atop it and trying to mount a cannon onto a tripod. She kept up her speed as she moved her hands outward. They glowed as she approached the dock, heading right toward a small break in the pilings underneath. From her hands extended a pair of solid light blades hanging outward. She streaked under the pilings, the blades slicing through the wood poles one by one. She flew out as the poles collapsed and took the dock with them, dumping the troops into the water.

<Try to keep the urban renewal to a minimum, children> Soldar said in a mildly reproaching tone. <Mel probably will be wanting a planet left to rule when this is over.>

<Sorry, boss> the two answered.

Soldar smiled. <You two are enjoying yourselves, aren't you?>

<Are you kidding?> Darknighter answered. <We get to cut loose, not hold back and all the bastards deserve it.>

<And best of all, there's no Internal Affairs to worry about> Apalla added.

<Enjoy yourselves, children> Soldar replied as he moved in to another fight.

Apalla glanced back at the soldiers and paused. <Oh, you have got to be shitting me.>

<What?> Elementra said.

<Okay, who helped Pretor out? Shamaran or Imator?>

<Yo>

<Why? What'd they do?>

<Your husband has a bunch of sharks going at the soldiers.>

<So? What's Shamaran got to do with it?>

<Just the fact that the sharks have FRICKIN' LASER BEAMS attached to their heads!>

<Oh, only white people could like "Austin Powers?">

*****

Mel ducked a swing from a guard and came up to punch him in the face. He was with Lucy and Elizabeth, trying to make their way through the streets. Needless to say, chaos was now the norm. The rebels were engaging in fights all around with the soldiers, mostly hand to hand. Normally, the soldiers would have had them severely outnumbered and outgunned. But thanks to the work of the Pantheon, they were depleted in both and unable to properly organize enough to mount a decent resistance.

Elizabeth spun around, her sword flashing as she deflected a soldier's staff and smashed himin the face with an elbow. She held back a cry of pain as she moved to kick another one down.Lucy was trying to keep up with a staff she had borrowed but was harder pressed to fight than theothers were.

"Are we any closer?" Elizabeth demanded.

"Not sure yet," Mel said. "We're still in for a fight. The city's big, there's only the one hole and I don't think we've got any reinforcements------"

"VARRIANS!"

Almost every person stopped whatever they were doing and looked up. Hanging overhead was a massive three-dimensional image of Ujaki. The general turned monk stood by the hole in the wall, staring forward. Imator was before him, a created camera in her hand that relayed the image above.

"I am Ujaki!" the man cried out. "I have been a soldier and I have been a priest. But above all, I have been loyal to this world. Loyal to the ideas that founded it. The...man who sits on the throne, Fahn, is not. He has no loyalties except to himself and himself alone. You have felt the pain and suffering created by his tyranny. You have longed for a chance for freedom. That chance is now! Melroy has returned! The true king is at long last here! He has organized an army who wish for justice to be done. He has allied with those attacking Fahn's forces now. He can give you your freedom. But he cannot do it alone. He needs you. He needs his people. This is your chance to win the freedom long denied you. If you want it...you must fight for it! Fight for it now!"

*Sheesh* Astra thought to herself. *This guy could write speeches for Captain America!*

A rumble grew around the city. For a moment, Mel wondered if perhaps Elementra was starting an earthquake. Then he realized it was the sound of voices being raised in a unanimous cry. One of defiance. Of joy. Of a people who were not taking any more of the pain they had been put through.

In the street, doors were flung open and men and women began to pour out. They held chairs, clubs, makeshift weapons and faces full of righteous indignation. They descended upon the soldiers, who barely had time to react before they were attacked and nearly overwhelmed.

Ujaki nodded in thanks to Imator who smiled back. "We're not going to take it," she softly sang. "No, we ain't gonna take it...we're not gonna take it...anymore...!"

*****

The only place the cheers did not reach was the chamber where the mutates were attempting to join the battle. Robin and Liam were doing their best to hold them back. A dozen mutates had already fallen, some in pieces, as the Limerick and Shamrock Connection used their lowered magics with skill, pacing themselves.

Robin slammed out a fist toward one mutate, unleashing a force blast that caved in his chest. He turned around and was surprised to suddenly see several of the mutates begin to tear into each other. "What the hell?"

Liam grinned. "Decided to use brain stead of brawn," the leprechaun said. "Little illusion spell, makes them think that they're facing off against enemies and do our work for them."

Robin shook his head and smiled. "Liam, you're the only man alive who can still amaze me on a semi-regular basis."

*****

Imator danced along the streets of the city, a grin on her face as she took in the battle around her. She watched as one soldier shoved down a young girl, slapping her across the face with a laugh. Her mind whirled as she ran over a range of options before one presented itself. She gave a wink and from thin air, a figure appeared behind the solider.

The man felt a tugging and spun around, his weapon up. He blinked in confusion as he saw nothing there, then looked down. Standing less than two feet was a small dog with long ears and a dour expression on his face. He marched forward, shoving at the guard's legs with surprising strength, knocking him to the ground. Not understanding what was happening, the man stared as the dog walked on hind legs up his body and leaned in, his forehead touching the soldier's.

"You know what?" Droopy asked. "That makes me mad."

He hauled back and threw out a fist, sending the guard flying backward as if catapulted. He hit the wall, shooting up to his feet, stunned. He fell forward only to have Droopy be there, hammering him with punches that kept him flying up and down, up and down, up and down. The dog grabbed his legs, slammed him on either side of the ground, spun him over his head and threw him into another wall.

As the soldier collapsed in a heap and the dog vanished into thin air, Imator grinned. "God, I've always wanted to see that."

There was a flash above her and she glanced up to see Apalla and Darknighter double-teaming a troop transport. <So, how are the Dynamic Duo?>

<Don't call us that> the two replied.

<How about Lois and Clark?>

<Stop it!>

<Tarzan and Jane?>

<No!>

<Yogi and Boo-Boo?>

<Kim, let her go back to Dynamic duo, please!>

*****

"Gods, what is happening?" a terrified soldier demanded as he and his squad saw one of the troop garrisons ahead burst into flames.

"Eyes front," the commander barked, trying to hide his own fear. "When we get to the main square, open fire on anyone not in a uniform. Rebels, civilians, I don't care, just kill them alland let the Great One sort it out."

"Funny," Pretor's voice spoke out. "We've got a more specialized point of view."

The soldiers whirled, weapons raised to where Pretor crouched on a nearby balcony. The commander glanced around but saw no one else present. "We? Who is we? You're alone."

Pretor shook his head, his face grim. "No. No, I'm not. I'm talking right now. I'm hearing the voices of others you've persecuted. The terau you hunted for their fur. The loracians whose homes you destroyed. The aviars who had their eggs stolen for delicacies. All the animals you've pushed and hunted and done wrong to are talking to me." His eyes narrowed as he bit out the rest. "And we're all sick of you."

A series of loud howls erupted around the soldiers as without warning animals went on the attack. The feral loracians descended from the rooftops, claws and teeth piercing the soldiers' skin. The badger-like teraus flowed around their legs and chewed and clawed at their feet and thighs. Some of the guards attempted to run but the winged aviars flew down to strike at their eyes.

Pretor let out small grim smile at the sight before him. If there was one thing he understood now, it was that the animals had their own sense of justice. And he was perfectly willing to help them achieve it.

<Hey> Shamaran's voice came through his head. <Anybody seen Astra?>

*****

High above the upper atmosphere of Varra, almost directly above the city itself was a small but prominent belt of asteroids. Normally, they simply floated a few thousand miles away from the planet and posed little danger. Now and again, a piece would drift off and downward but by the time it had gone through the atmosphere, it was little more than gravel.

That was until Astra got a hold of some pieces. She was straddling on two major pieces, one under each foot as she sailed downward. A dozen other rocks, all varying in side but quite large, flew behind her. She pointed her staff downward, directing the celestial objects as she swooped down toward the planet. The rocks sparked and bits of dirt flew off. But their size, mass and velocity kept them from breaking up too much as Astra aimed them toward the city.

<Heads up! Shamaran, get some shielding going!>

Shamaran whipped his head upward, his eyes widening as he saw the streaking covering the sky. <Shit.> He let his staff glow so he could create a shield over the people on the streets below. The asteroids smashed into several of the troop garrison buildings, creating a shower of debris as towers collapsed and the top floors of buildings fell. The debris smashed into the shield Shamaran had erected, the people startled to see the remains smashing into pieces above them.

<I don't believe it> Apalla said as she hovered next to her fellow flyer.

<Not that hard> Astra replied modestly. <Just redirecting a few asteroids is all.>

<Not that, I don't believe you actually sat through *Armageddon!*>

*****

Shamaran shook his head as he levitated over the main street where most of the fighting was taking place. His eyes darted behind his glasses as he tried to see if anyone there needed aid. He saw Mel glancing up and giving him a wave and lowered himself to the ground. He saw a soldier moving to slash at Elizabeth from behind and waved his hand so the sword turned into a dead fish. The soldier never knew what had happened before Elizabeth turned and slammed her sword butt into his face.

Elizabeth looked at the fish, then up at Shamaran. "A salmon?"

The black man shrugged. "First thing that popped into mind. Magic's not a science, you know."

"You mean, not an exact science."

"No, not a science, period."

Mel nodded thanks to Shamaran, then looked at the distance between them and the palace. "We need a faster way in there."

Shamaran smiled. "Buddy, you said the magic words. Actually, no, that's my job..."

He held up his staff and incanted, the crystal glowing. There was a shimmer in the air and a bright portal opened before Mel. "Hop on in and one direct link to the palace acoming!"Shamaran smiled.

Mel nodded a thanks, then leaped into the portal. Behind him, Elizabeth saw the portal, knew what he was getting into and rushed toward the portal. She went in only a second after Mel had vanished. "Oh, shit," Shamaran said.

Before he could react, Lucy and Tarring had also entered the portal before he could close it. The Master Mage slowly shook his head. "Oh, I really wished they'd waited until I told them it wasn't a stable portal..."

*****

Mel emerged to find himself in a massive room. It took a moment for him to connect and realize he was in the throne room. It was currently empty and apparently in a hurry. Mel carefully walked across, eyes peering about, senses on high alert, listening for any sign of danger. He could hear the thump and roar of the battle outside, the occasional explosion and blast of energy from one of the Pantheon. He tried to block them out, keeping his breathing steady as he carefully paced the room.

There was a creak behind him and he spun, his weapon held up before him to catch the swing of the large sword Fahn held. The emperor hissed as he struck out again and again it was blocked by Melroy, who shoved the man away.

They stared at each other for a long moment. The two enemies finally coming face to face and seeing each other for the first time. "Melroy," Fahn slowly stated. "So. At last we meet."

Mel looked him up and down and frowned. "Funny. I thought you were going to be taller."

Fahn carefully paced before the younger man, tapping his sword in one hand. "I don't suppose we can discuss this at all?"

"If this is the part where you ask me to join you, save it," Mel said. "You killed my parents. You took over my world. You caused misery and pain and God only knows what else to these people for twenty years." He hefted his weapon up. "We both know how this will end."

Fahn smiled as he lifted his sword and lunged on the attack.

*****

Elizabeth blinked and suppressed a chill as she stepped out of the portal. She glanced about in confusion, seeing no sign of Mel anywhere. *Damn. The spell must have shifted a bit.* She realized in the seconds it took her to follow, Mel could be anywhere else in the palace. Elizabeth sighed and looked about for an exit...

And the Buzz struck her.

She stopped, not just at the presence but in surprise at feeling it. Her eyes darted about as she hefted up her sword, trying to pinpoint the source. There was the sound of footsteps and sheturned to face the other Immortal.

Jorbell stared at her, holding a sharp and polished blade in his hands. He slowly stepped in, seeming as surprised as Elizabeth to sense another Immortal. He looked her over and smiled. "Well, well. This is an unexpected twist."

Elizabeth peered at him. Something about the man just seemed so oddly familiar. Maybe with a beard or mustache, hair parted another way...Her eyes widened in shocked realization. "MyGod. Henri Jurger."

The man stiffened, unable to hide his surprise. "You...you know me?"

Elizabeth slowly nodded, her face set in anger. "Dr. Henri Jurger. Surgeon and aide to Dr. Joseph Mengle. The Butcher of the Balkans. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by Israeli and German tribunals."

Jurger set his jaw. "So. You know of me."

"I know you're considered one of the greatest traitors to the Hippocratic Oath ever. "Elizabeth's eyes blazed with anger. "That you personally murdered and butchered and did God only knows what else to hundreds of innocent people."

"I was only following------"

"You complete that sentence and I'll take your head just on the principle of the thing," the Briton snarled.

Jurger looked at her and his lips turned up in a slight smile as he held up his blade. "Will you try to teach those principles now?"

Elizabeth stared at him and recognized the inevitable. She stripped away her outer, coat, throwing it aside as she made sure her hair was pulled back. She sighed as she stepped back, giving her sword a twirl. Jurger removed his own cloak as he swept his sword back and forth with a skill and precision that let her know he was quite old.

Elizabeth was trying to hide her nervousness. It had been five years since she'd last had to duel an Immortal and she hadn't had as much practice time as she would have hoped due to her ER duties. However, she was guessing Jurger was even more out of practice then that. She hoped that would give her the edge.

They faced each other as Jurger held his blade up and swept it down in a salute. Elizabeth stepped back, sword held in the two handed grip Duncan had taught her. They stared at one another for a long moment and then Jurger lunged with a sweep at her gut. Elizabeth blocked it and backed away, moving her sword to block Jurger's next blow and the next. She turned and threw out her blade in her own sweep. The two began to dance around the large chamber, swords clanging against each other as they dueled.

*****

"Oh, great, now what?" Lucy half-groaned as she and Tarring found themselves in a small hallway. The blonde doctor brushed at her hair and wondered just how much more of this she could take. The priest glanced about, his old soldier skills coming to the fore as he tried to see if anyone was around.

Lucy glanced out a large window, seeing the explosions and forces of battle. She watched as Apalla swept by, unleashing a blast from her hands that smashed into a troop transport, scattering it about. "Damn, they're on fire," the doctor muttered under her breath.

Tarring paused before he heard a noise from a room ahead. He looked over to Lucy and motioned toward the door in question. She followed him as he walked forward, peering through the space where the door was open.

Inside the room, Maro was quickly throwing some clothes into a waiting bag, stuffing them as hard and fast as he could. "Well, well," Lucy spoke up. "The big rat deserting the sinking ship."

Maro whirled about to face her and Tarring, eyes darting between them. "Who are you?"

"Two people who are friends of the two cops you tortured," Lucy informed him in a dark tone. "And who don't like putting up with scumbag supporters of dictators."

Maro appeared quite calm as he stared down the duo. "I did what I had to do to survive. Nothing more or less."

"Well, sure," Lucy remarked, crossing her arms. "After all, you serve one Fuhrer, why not another?"

Maro peered at her in confusion. "How do you know of that? What do you know of the Fuhrer?"

"Just who are you really?" Tarring interjected. "What did you call yourself before you took on the title of assistant butcher?"

Maro drew himself up and with a touch of pride announced, "My name is Martin Bromman."

Taring and Lucy both stared at him in other shock. "Of course," Tarring softly said. "The Reichsleiter of the Third Reich. Personal secretary to Adolf Hitler. Disappeared without a trace during the fall of Germany."

Maro stared at him. "How can you know these things?"

"My father was with the 101st on Omaha Beach," the priest replied.

"My God," Lucy said, staring in disbelief at the aged man. "The most wanted Nazi war criminal of them all, hiding on an alien planet all these years..."

Bromnan shook his head in disbelief. "So...you are from Earth. So I'm only remembered as a war criminal, eh? It's the winners who obscure history, young lady!"

Tarring's face was set in anger. "You aided the most murderous regime in history and abetted the murder of millions of people. Those are the only facts that are important."

"Just how the hell did you get here anyhow?" Lucy asked.

The Nazi stared off. "Jorbell and I were retreating to safety in South America where we could rebuild------"

"You got out when the getting was good," Lucy interrupted. "Just like now."

Ignoring her, Bromnan continued. "We ran into a disturbance in the water. A wave of energy, an overwhelming light...and the next thing we knew we were here."

"Where, of course, you decided to throw in with the resident psycho and rebuild the Reich," Lucy interjected.

Bromnan glared at her and shook his head. "And it was going well. Until you. Until he let his obsession with that boy take over and bring down everything we had created."

"Wow, guess that karma stuff works after all," Lucy dryly remarked. "Well, sorry to say but I don't think you're going to be doing a repeat today either. So why don't you just give up now and----"

Bromman's hand ducked under the bag and emerged with a gun in his hand. Instinctively, Lucy shoved Tarring aside as the man opened fire. She yelled as she took the shot in her shoulder, knocking her back. Snarling, Bromnan moved over to fire again but with a sudden speed, Tarring knocked the gun away.

Snarling, the aged Nazi suddenly rushed the priest, knocking him back a surprising strength. The two made it into the hallway, pushing each other against the wall and then the windows. Bromnan pressed a hand against Tarring's chin, pressing his head back. Tarring tried to fight back but the older man did have a bit more leverage.

Bromnan kept on pressing the priest at the window. He was so intent on Tarring, he never saw Lucy drag herself to her feet and then rush at him. She slammed into Bromnan hard, knocking him back and into one of the large windows nearby. Already weakened from the energy outside, the window shattered, sending both of them flying out.

Lucy shrieked as she felt the rush of wind, she and Bromnan separating as they fell. The Nazi screamed as well as they plummeted, arms and legs flaying in all directions. Bromnan was slightly ahead so Lucy got a rather nice view as his body smashed into a precipice, killing him almost instantly. He literally bounced off and fell further, now a lifeless doll.

Lucy kept on going, the sight of the ground rushing faster and faster toward her. Immortal or not, a fall like this was not going to be pleasant and she steeled her eyes for the imminent smash....

And suddenly, she was yanked upward as if she was on a bungee cord. Gasping in surprise, she looked about, seeing the city seeming to shrink below her. She turned her head upward and saw Astra floating above her, giving her a smile. "Hiya," she said.

Lucy gasped. "Oh, brother. "You had to make the dramatic save, didn't you?"

"That's why I'm the hero," Astra nodded.

Lucy nodded. "Thanks."

"Oh, by the way, about Mel..."

"Oh, God..."

"He's yours."

Lucy looked at her with mild surprise as Astra pulled her up to the window she had fallen out of and lightly placed her on her feet. "You two check on Mel, make sure he's okay," the teensaid as she sped away.

Lucy looked at her departing form, then down to the streets below where Bromnan had fallen. "I've never killed a man before," she whispered.

Tarring patted her shoulder. "God's will be done." He shrugged. "With a little help."

*****

The battle had spread from the wall to the inner parts of Varran, on multiple levels as the people rose up. Combat raged about and whenever it did, one of the Pantheon would invariably be involved. As with Imator as she stepped into an alleyway where a pair of soldiers were about to shoot a group of civilians. "Ahem," the woman said, her outfit now resembling a rainbow-colored Zorro. As the soldiers looked to her, she smiled. "Say hello to a friend of mine. El Cabong."

The soldiers frowned. "Who-----"

Swinging down from the building above was what appeared to be a horse hanging on a rope with a mask and cape and a guitar in one hand. With two swings, he smashed the guitar over the guard's heads, knocking them down.

"CABONG!"

A flood of footsteps came to her ears and Imator turned to see another dozen troops moving in. Her eyes twinkled, her suit turning into a ninja outfit as two figures appeared out of the blue and moved in to begin attacking the troops with sensational kung fu moves.

Zipping above, Astra looked down at the fight, shook her head and sent her teammate a message. <Bruce Lee AND Jackie Chan? Bit of overkill, isn't it?>

<Maybe> Imator allowed. <But, come on, don't they look cool as hell together?>

<Surprised you don't call in the Hulk.>

<Sorry, kiddo. But these things can have some of their own mentalities and I really don't think we need a Hulk fight, okay?>

<Spoilsport.>

<Wow, that may be the first time anyone's ever called me that...> She focused on the soldiers when suddenly the ground underneath them turned into taffy. <Wow! Neat, Mr. Wizard!>

<Thank you> Shamaran answered as he floated above her. <Anybody else need a hand?>

<I think We've got some skills of our own, thanks> Pretor replied.

<Hey, when it comes to magic, I know more than you do.>

<Call him Dr. Science!>

<Did you have *any* friends growing up?>

*****

Across the city, Pretor fired a pair of arrows from his mini-crossbows, knocking down two soldiers. He holstered them and reached to his whip. Uncoiling it, he leaned back and threw out his arm and let the whip swing out. The tip ignited with a ball of energy as it struck the building, resulting in an explosion that sent debris down before another patrol.

<I never realized the sheer unadulterated joy in causing mayhem> the man thought.

<As long as it's for a good cause> Elementra quickly added.

*****

Elizabeth rolled backward as Jurger's blade swung at her. She came up to her knees, holding up her sword to block a downward lunge and getting to her feet as she tried to parry into an attack. The two had moved into a large hall, once the sight for state dinners but long unused. They dodged around the dusty table and chairs as they dueled, each trying to find and exploit an opening. Both had some tears in their clothing from cuts long since healed but so far neither had struck a mortal blow. The two Immortals were almost evenly matched but Jurger did had strength and experience on his side and Elizabeth could feel herself weakening.

Her leg hit a loose chair, disrupting her balance. Jurger pressed the opportunity, kicking her back and sending Elizabeth crashing down. She tried to raise her sword but a slash at her arm knocked it aside. Elizabeth scrambled for her blade, trying to reach it as Jurger moved in, his own sword raised high and a malevolent smile on his face. "There can be only one," he intoned.

Just as he was about to strike, the Buzz cut through them both. Jurger's eyes glanced about, surprised to feel another Immortal's presence. Elizabeth kept going, her fingers reaching the hilt of her blade.

Lucy and Tarring burst into the chamber just in time to see Jurger shake himself off and swing his blade down. But the brief hesitation had given Elizabeth the time to grab her sword, hold it back behind her head and block the German's blow. "You're out of date," she quipped as she spun in place, her sword slashing at Jurger's gut.

He staggered back, yelling in pain as Elizabeth got back to her feet. She went back on the attack, her vigor renewed at how close he had come to finishing her. Jurger fought back but was slowed by the tear along his mid-section. He mistimed a lunge and Elizabeth managed to slash him again, this time along the chest. Jurger snarled and lunged forward but Elizabeth was ready for him. She stabbed her blade into his chest and in one motion, grabbed his arm and bent it forward, pulling him ahead. She twisted his sword as she did so Jurger ended up impaled on his own blade.

The man gasped in agony as he fell to his knees, his sword sticking through his stomach and out his back. He heaved with harried breaths as Elizabeth stood over him, her sword raised high above her head. Jurger slowly looked up at her, pain and fear mixing together. Elizabeth's own eyes were cold and hard as she glared at the man. "Some days," she bit out. "I just pray to God there's a Hell."

She swung her arms down and her sword sliced Jurger's head off his body. Lucy gasped and Tarring crossed himself as the body slumped to the ground. Elizabeth backed away, lowering her sword, taking deep breaths as she prepared herself. "I hate this bloody part," she whispered.

A cloud of white energy exited Jurger's body and flowed to Elizabeth. She moaned as it entered her, trying to keep herself steady. The chill was as bad as she remembered but she still wasn't fully prepared for when the first bolt of electricity struck her. She gasped as it ripped through her body, followed by another, and another as the Quickening began.

Lucy and Tarring both stepped back, eyes wide as they watched the spectacle before them. Bolts of energy wracked Elizabeth's body, shaking her from teeth to toes as the Quickening kicked in. Lightning blasted around the chamber, shattering windows as the wind ripped through the room. Elizabeth was unable to keep from crying out as Jurger's essence entered her, her hair whipping about her face as it did.

The Quickening ended and Elizabeth collapsed on her knees, heaving with breath. Lucy and Tarring both stared in mute amazement as the chamber quieted. "Is...is it always that bad?" Lucy asked as they approached Elizabeth.

The Briton nodded as she rose. "Yes....pretty much. But you do get used to it." She sighed with a deep breath. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and be sick..."

*****

Soldar was a blur of motion, a lethal figure who popped in and out of the battle with such speed even his teammates couldn't keep up with him. He would appear whenever the city's soldiers seemed to be getting the upper hand with a fight and stop such advances in their tracks. Most soldiers died without even managing a single offensive move. Some never got any move at all. It wasn't long before his dark uniform was splattered with the colorful Varrian blood and his blades were coated in dark liquid.

Dullrena couldn't match his speed or savagery but she too was making strides in her assaults on the soldiers. Her blade flashed in the air, slicing through necks and chests, yet never coming near those on her own side. She slammed one point into another chest, a twisted look of savagery on her face. Yet for all her skills, she was still prone to an attack from an unexpected corner.

One soldier managed to get lucky, firing a blast from his gun that impacted her shoulder. Dullrena cried out in pain, turning around and facing the soldier as he prepared the kill shot. A powerful rocky arm suddenly smashed into him, turning his face into a bloody mess and sending him flying backward. Dullrena looked up to see Bekor standing before her. The Granton simply gave her a strong nod, which Dullrena returned.

There was a blast of energy and the two turned to see a large guard keel over dead. Behind him was Eril, who nodded at them with a smile. Nearby, Ujaki saw them and smiled. Nothing like a battle to bring people together.

*****

The clash of steel on steel echoed through the stairwell as Fahn and Mel continued their battle. The emperor led the way up, slashing down at the young man beneath him. Mel was hard-pressed to keep up but he managed. Part of that was the training he'd put himself through over the years. The other part was the anger brewing within him. The anger over all this man had done to him over the years. All he had taken from him, including a family, the years of loneliness and loss, all of it came pouring into Mel and drove him on the attack.

A blast of cool air hit his skin and he realized he and Fahn had actually made it to the outside of the palace. The wind whipped at them both as they continued to fight along the narrow walkway, the battle still raging around them.

They both broke away to gain a breath and strength. Fahn let his eyes travel along the wide expanse of the city and they were wide with shock. Smoke flew upward from various parts of the city, showing the parts of the city that were taking the burnt of the attacks. His soldiers were being overrun, the people on the rise and the Pantheon flew about, smashing aside defenses and scattering the soldiers. With a chill, Fahn realized that this was a fight he couldn't win.

"It's over," Mel bit out, heaving for breath. "Everything you had, everything you've built, everything you've worked for...I'm taking it all."

Fahn tried to shake off his shock and glared at Mel. "Maybe so..." he hissed. "But at least I'll make sure you don't get to enjoy it."

With a howl of rage, he raced forward, his sword aloft and went on the assault. He swep this sword in wild slashes and attacks, Mel suddenly finding himself on the defensive. He backed away as the emperor went at him, wanting his blows to hit home. Fahn's eyes blazed with rage and madness and Mel could instantly tell what he was thinking: If he was going down, he was going to try and take Mel with him.

*****

Astra was flying in from the northern end of the city when she saw the clash and halted in mid-air. <Guys, Mel's in trouble, I'm going to------>

<No> Soldar broke in. <This is Mel's fight to win or lose. Let him do it himself.>

<But no reason we can't miss the fun...> Imator added with a grin as she let her powers flow...

*****

Once more, the skies above Varran were lit up by a screen, this one showing the duel between Fahn and Mel. Slowly at first, but increasingly, the battles between soldiers and rebels ceased as people caught sight of the fight. Soon, all eyes in the city were on the screens as they watched the future of their planet be decided.

Oblivious to the attention, the two continued to fight. Fahn smashed Mel in the face with a fist, then backhanded him near the wall. Mel hit it chest-first, gasping as he looked over the side. Fahn lifted up his sword and swung down but Mel had already rolled away, sparks flying as steel met stone. Mel swung out his double-edged blade, tearing a cut along Fahn's arm. The emperor howled and made a blind charge. Mel turned and stood atop the rampart. As Fahn charged, he leaped forward, flipping over the emperor. Fahn struck the wall and bounced back, turning just in time to catch the point of Mel's spear right in his gut.

Fahn gasped with surprise and pain, his body frozen. Mel twisted the rod in his hands and his sword fell away. Fahn stared out at Mel, fear in his eyes as he looked at the younger man. Mel's own eyes were filled with a cold, silent satisfaction, a tight smile on his face as he stared at Fahn. "For what you've done to my planet...I can't possibly kill you enough." He twisted the spear again as he began to push the dictator back. "Go back to the darkness," he said. "You'll recognize it. It's where you were spawned."

He shoved forward, lifting his end of the spear as he did. Fahn hit the edge of the rampart and momentum took him all the way over. With a long and loud scream, Fahn fell the entire long, agonizing fall off the palace and to the streets far, far below.

<Well....that last twist will cost him the East German vote> Apalla managed to comment as a silence filled the city. Then once more a massive cheer went up as the people realized what had happened. The tyrant who had for so long held them down was finally dead and his killer was the man meant to be their king. Most of the soldiers saw it was over and lay down their arms. Those that did attempt to fight back were swiftly subdued as the battle turned into a celebration.

Mel stood atop the parapet, looking down on the city and hearing the cheers. He closed his eyes and took a moment to truly take it all in, the overwhelming feeling of the occasion. When he opened his eyes, he knew what he was. He was a king.

*****

Dullrena let out a long and loud laugh of pure joy, a sound long unheard. She and Eril actually exchanged a quick embrace as the streets rode wild with cheering civilians and the more subdued city guard.

"It's over," Ujaki said, his aged face showing a wide smile. "It's truly over."

"No, my friend," Eril corrected, looking up toward the palace. "It's just beginning."

*****

<Hey, anyone hear from Robin or Liam?> Elementra asked as the Pantheon gathered together in the town center.

<Not me> Shamaran answered.

<Me either> Imator chimed in. <Figured they'd be complimenting me if nothing else.>

Soldar frowned as he moved to the area where the mutates were supposed to come from. He saw the door still shut and kicked it open. He entered, sword drawn, battle sense alert as he headed down the narrow walkway to the room at the bottom. He stopped and stared at the sight before him.

A small mountain of mutated corpses was piled up in the middle of the room. Sitting atop it, as nice as one could please, Liam and Robin were playing cards with one corpse used as the table. They both looked up to see Soldar standing there.

"Bout time ye got here," Liam said. "We were running out of things to do."

†††

*****

Part twenty: In which more allies arrive and Hell is unleashed.

Steven St Wolf's Home
Sunnydale, CA
May 25th, 1999 - 1749 Hours PST

A flash of light echoed through the room, startling many of the occupants. Marc Le Chavelier, Knight General of the Grail Order, instinctively went to his blade as did many of the two dozen Knights he had brought with him, including Kate. They relaxed when the light faded to reveal Sonja, Gabrielle and Aideen. The two Immortal Amazons were dressed in tight leather that doubled as armor, drawing quite a few admiring glances from the majority of men in the room.

The two paused and shivered a bit. "I hate that transport mode," Sonja sighed. "I do. Why do the Irish always have to make things so much more wilder?"

"Didn't hear you complaining in 644," Angus said with a smirk on his face. Both Sonja and Gabrielle looked to him and upon recognizing him, both gave small smiles.

Xander watched the exchange and turned to Ivar. "Both of them?"

Ivar nodded, his eyes closed in pain. "Just when I thought he'd finally shut up about it..."

The two new arrivals both took a moment to take in the scene. Besides the Grail Knights, other new arrivals included Jarod Russell and Andrea Parker, both dressed in dark clothing and coats, ready for combat. The living room was actually getting rather crowded with the large assortment of fighters, all preparing weapons and trying to understand the situation.

There was a knock at the front door quickly answered by Steve. He smiled and bowed his head at the strong figure who entered. "Good of you to come."

"I was happy to," Arthur Pendragon replied. The one-time King of England entered the room, wearing full armor, Excalibur at his side. He nodded as he took in the fighters, pausing as his eyes fell on one in particular. "Torc? Torc, is that you?"

The Knight's teacher looked up and stared in utter amazement. "My...My liege.." he stammered. "I...they told me you were alive but..."

"Ah, so many old faces." Arthur clasped a hand to Torc's shoulder and gave him a wide smile. "Good to see you again, my friend."

"And you, My Liege."

"Wow," Rhoan muttered. "I've never seen Torc bow and scrape like that before."

Aideen sniffed. "You weren't there when I found out about him and Maeve."

"Thank you so much, Aideen," Ivar groaned. "I finally got that image out of my head and you put it in again."

"Sorry," she shrugged. "You should know that happens by now."

"Point taken."

"Well, we're here," Gabrielle said. "So, what's the exact situation?"

Steve sighed as he motioned toward Zev. "Well, it sort of all began a couple of nights ago..."

*****

1827 Hours PST

"So, to make a long story short..."

"Too late," Parker murmured under her breath. Everyone in the room looked a bit exhausted after listening to the long explanation Steve gave them. The tension seemed to have grown in the moments since as everyone now knew the situation and how dangerous it truly was.

"So, you've got this nutcase out to open the Hellmouth," Maxine threw in. "Just how fucked are we if she does it?"

Giles sighed deeply. "Even a small breach of the Hellmouth can unleash some severe demonic attacks. If she opens it all the way....it could swallow Sunnydale, then perhaps California, then spread throughout the world."

"There's that lovely British optimism," Ivar sighed as he lounged in a chair.

"I still don't get it," Parker interjected. "How did this woman beat the spells you had?"

"Um, spells?" Willow asked.

"Yeah," Parker nodded. "I mean, I assume you used some spells on her to make sure she was telling the truth."

The group exchanged embarrassed glances and Willow shrugged. "Well....she seemed so sincere...."

Aideen rolled her eyes. "In lieu of the absence of two others, I'll say it. Lord what fools these mortals be."

Methos coughed and held up a hand. "Far be it for me to be the voice of doubt..."

"But you do it so well," Richie interjected.

Methos ignored him, nodding to Zev. "How can we be sure this fellow is on the up and up?"

Zev returned the stare for a long moment before he reached to his watch. "Oh, shit," Willow muttered. "Just remember, you guys asked for this."

*****

Three minutes later, the entire room was silent as everyone tried to process the horror they had just witnessed. Even Methos was pale-faced. At his worst as a Horseman, even he couldn't rise to such monstrosities.

Rhoan was the first to find his voice, looking to Zev. "I'm sorry. I know how you must feel."

Zev snorted. "My only living kin is a psychotic monster who only cares about herself and hurting others. How can you know what I feel?"

Rhoan narrowed his eyes. "I think you and I should talk."

"I still don't understand this," Mulder stated. His analytical mind was trying hard to decipher the personality Zev had described. "What's in it for her? What does she get out of it?"

"Enjoyment," Zev answered. "That's the most terrifying part about my sister, Mr. Mulder. She doesn't do this for power or because she wants to cause some sort of confusion to take charge of something. She does this because she wants to, because it gives her pleasure."

Methos was silent. Out of everyone, he could truly understand what Zev was talking about. It had been thousands of years in the past but he could still remember the joy he took as Death.

Mulder and Scully were having a more difficult time. They were used to dealing with people who had motives that made sense, even if only to themselves. That a woman could commit multiple galactic genocide purely for enjoyment was something they had not been trained to accept. "I just can't understand-----"

"You have to understand something about my sister, Mr. Mulder," Zev interrupted. "She is not only totally insane but she honestly believes she's more important than anyone in the universe and therefore everyone else is just a plaything to her. She doesn't have any more remorse over wiping out a civilization than you would about swatting a fly. This is nothing but a game to her and the people who die because of it are merely statistics. To her, every planet she destroys, she wins. Every one I save, I win."

"How many has she won?" Scully asked.

Zev sighed. "26 more than she should have."

"Well, the streak stops here," Steve stated without hesitation. "At midnight, we're shutting her down."

"Yeah her and the small army of demons she's got backing her now," Parker sardonically remarked.

"We'll find a way."

"Well, we might have more of a chance if two certain someones hadn't gotten run out of town..." Aideen observed.

"Oh, sure, blame us!" Cordelia yelled. "After what they did, they should be lucky we didn't just kick their asses!"

"Relax, will you?" Angus said. "Don't get your boxers in an uproar."

"All right, that's it!" Cordelia moved forward. "Come on, Irish boy!"

Angus chuckled as he looked to Aideen. "Lass has a short memory, eh?"

"Yeah, ye'd think she'd remember the ass-whippin' ye gave her last time," Aideen said.

"Cut it out, you two," Xander chided. "She had a rough time of it. And now's not the time to push her."

"Why?" Angus innocently asked. "She can't be on her period, can she?"

Xander looked at Cordelia, who nodded. "That's it. He's on the list."

Parker and Jarod were snickering as well as Mulder looked to them. "So you got the director's cut too?"

Jarod motioned to his lover. "I don't think I've ever seen Andrea laugh that hard before."

Parker nodded. "I broke a rib when the training section started."

"Remind me again to kill Robin and Liam when they show up," Cordelia announced to general nods of agreement from the Sunnydale residents.

"So we need their power and they're not here." Aideen shook her head. "So typical. They're off partying and laughing while we're facing the End Times. That is so Liam, he is so impossible, so bluidy irresponsible, it's just like when we were married, I can't just------"

"YOU WHAT?!"

Aideen stopped and looked at the people staring at her in shock. She paused, running her last words through her head and winced. "Ah, dammit, he never mentioned that, did he?" She threw her hands upward. "Lord, will no one ever shut me up?"

Amy blinked her eyes. "You were involved with Robin and married to Liam?"

"Not at the same time!" Aideen barked back, insulted.

Angus closed his eyes in pain. "Thank you so much for the visual reference."

Xander smirked as he looked at the faery. "So, which one were you? 12? 25? 100?"

Aideen sighed deeply. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the very first Mrs. Liam Devlin O'Shaunnesgy Patrick Dillion O'Hara Paddywick McHale Thornton Danahure."

Another long silence filled the room. "You were the first?" Rhoan asked.

"Yep."

"That explains so much," Angus muttered under his breath.

Zev rubbed at his face. "I couldn't have found her on Celius IV or Risa or Iotar, no, I had to find her on a planet of madpeople."

Andrea glared at him. "Watch the mouth, buddy."

Zev returned the glare. "Oh, decided to join the conversation, have we? I presumed you were too busy pawing at your companion who at least knows when to keep quiet."

Parker narrowed her eyes. "One more crack about me or Jarod and you'll have my heel imprint in your balls."

"Do it."

Parker blinked. "What?"

"Kick me in the crotch as hard as you can," Zev said in a flat voice.

Parker stared at him, then at the others, who just shrugged, not knowing what Zev was asking any more than she did. Shrugging herself, Parker hauled back and hit Zev square between the legs.

The man blinked but that was all. A long silence came in as everyone stared in amazement at him. "How did..." Jarod started.

A sly smile covered Zev's face. "I take it that the men on this planet are unable to retract their genital?"

Xander spoke up. "All those here who hate this guy?"

Every single male raised his hand.

*****

It was at that moment the doorbell rang. Everyone glanced at each other with confusion. "Were we expecting anyone else?" Duncan asked Steve.

The man shook his head. "No. I don't know who that can be."

"Hold on," Joyce said. "I'll go check." She moved over to walk toward the front door.

Joyce slowly opened the door and stared at the figure standing before her. He was a man of medium height and a wily build with long black hair that flowed around him. Several strands were actually beaded, peeking out from under the large brown hat her wore. He was clad in an old-style uniform that reminded Joyce of an Errol Flynn movie with large boots, coat and a white puffy shirt. His face was set with what looked like a permanent smirk, his handsome features marked by a short mustache and long beard with two beaded tendrils. He removed his had and bowed to Joyce, revealing a kerchief wrapped around his head.

"Salutations, my good lady. Permission to come aboard."

While he had no alcohol on his breath, the man slurred like he was drunk and had a strange English accent. Without waiting for permission from Joyce, he marched into the room, singing under his breath. "We're beggars and blighters and ne'er-do-well cards, drink up me hearties, yo ho...Aye, but we're loved by our moms and our dads, drink up me hearties, yo ho!"

He entered the living room and smiled at the gathered group. "Evening all. Hope I haven't kept you all waiting."

The vast majority of people in the room stared at him in confusion. But several of the Immortals had looks of shock that turned to anger. Kate rose from her chair, marched over and slapped a hand across the man's face. He jumped back rubbing his chin and muttered, "Not sure I deserved that one..."

Marc crossed his arms as he glared at the man. "Exactly what part of 'never let me see your face again' did you not understand?"

The man seemed to think about it. "Um....middle part?" He looked over to Amanda and smiled. "Well, Amanda, so nice to-----"

Her hand smashed into his face and he shook his head again. "Not sure I deserved that one either..."

Diedre was already up and on her feet, reaching out to smack the man as well. "I may have deserved that one..." he murmured under his breath.

Amanda glared at him. "After that mess you put me in back in 1814..."

"Ah, that was only a lark," the man replied with a wave. "You were always one to hold a grudge..."

"Just what are you doing here?" Marc demanded.

"Well, I was simply boating about when I got wind on the frequency of what was going on, thought I'd drop by," the man explained.

Marc narrowed his eyes. "You couldn't have picked up our frequency. It's specially designed so no one outside the Grail can access it!"

"Aye, and it was a good one too," the man said. "Unfortunately, mate, your little program has one very vital flaw..."

"Which is?"

The man smiled and spread out his hands. "I'm Captain Jack Sparrow."

"You know this guy?" Steve asked.

"Unfortunately," Marc muttered under his breath. "He used to work with the Grail a few decades ago."

"But we had a slight falling out," Sparrow interjected.

"You stole a shipment of gold," Kate accused.

"Borrowed," Sparrow corrected. "Borrowed...with no real intention of ever giving back but still..."

Marc shook his head. "I knew we should have taken your head then and there."

"Yes, well, you didn't," Sparrow pointed out. "And so I've gone back to my roots as an independent operator."

"You mean a pirate," Amanda threw in.

He shrugged. "Ah, labels."

Duncan made a gentle smile. "I don't know. I've done some piracy myself."

"As did I," Methos threw in. "We weren't all nasty, irrepressible scoundrels." He became aware of Duncan looking at him. "What?"

Buffy was peering at Sparrow. "You're not an Immortal," she said. "So how can you be so young?"

"Ah, therein hangs a tale, dearie," Sparrow said. "But one that can wait."

"Thank Goddess," Cordelia muttered.

"From what I can gather," Sparrow said. "You all need as much help as you can get."

"That is true," Steve admitted. "Fine, you're in."

"Splendid!" Sparrow smiled. "Now, as to the method of payment..."

Steve stared at him. It dawned on him that he was quite probably looking at a man who had spent one too many days under the hot Caribbean sun. "What?"

"Payment," Sparrow repeated. "You know, how much you're going to pay me to take part in this. Let's start with what's the going rate around here for the others and move on."

Steve blinked as he understood. "You want us to pay you for helping save the world?"

"Well, one must make a living, mate," Sparrow insisted. "I mean, why else would you have all these people around here helping?"

"Because they believe in what they're doing," Steve coolly informed him. "Because they're dedicated and willing to sacrifice anything, including their lives, to help save others."

Sparrow's face was blank as he took in what Steve was saying. "Am I to understand..." he finally said. "That you are all doing this...out of the goodness of your hearts?" He shook his head. "There goes my long-standing faith in humanity..."

"I've yet to see it in place myself," Zev intoned. He gave Sparrow's appearance a perusal. "Exactly what third-rate carnival did you pull out of for this?"

Sparrow narrowed his eyes. "I don't appreciate my style being attacked."

"I'm sure if happens often," Zev dryly stated.

In a lightning fast move, Sparrow had pulled out an old-style pistol, aiming it right at Zev. "You'd best be careful about how you insult a pirate, laddie."

A bare hand covered the end of the pistol and the air around it chilled. Everyone stared as the front end froze solid and was quickly snapped off. Sub-Zero gave Sparrow an icy look as he threw the remains aside. Sparrow stared at the ninja, then at the broken pistol and raised an eyebrow. "Now that's interesting..." he murmured.

Connor looked to Mulder. "When you told me he was a cold bastard, I assumed you were speaking metaphorically."

"Enough talk," Shaw remarked. She rose from her seat, Feasellityar in her hand, ready to be used. "We have to attack and attack now."

"Easy, Shaw," Steve said. "We still have some time before we're ready to move..."

"I am ready now," Shaw retorted. "I will be ready for the battle and handle myself."

"Now, lassie, ye should listen to the man," Aideen said. "I know you're worried about the priest but think about it and you should be able to see how the boss-man's raising a good point. Even yer cuz has to figure that, not to mention the most-recently gender impaired------"

Shaw's hand smashed into Aideen's chin, sending the faery stumbling back. She hit the wall, rubbing her face in shock. As a stunned silence came over the group, Shaw angrily stepped forward, her face tight with rage as she leaned in toward Aideen. "Understand this, you sassanach Unislee whore! If you EVER again insult my family in any way, shape or form, I will send Feasellityar so far up your ass that its tip will penetrate the roof of your mouth, I will rip off your wings and shove them down your throat and I will rip your faked-human body into so many shreds that the only thing it will be good for will be as dinner for mongrels! Are. We. Under. Stood?!"

She backed away, her face still tight. Aideen's own expression changed from shock to anger as she strode forward to glare right back at Shaw. "Now, listen to me, you little half-breed, cold-ass bitch! You don't cheap shot me like that, certainly not over a little comment I made----"

Shaw spun back, her face tight with anger. "You insulted my family in a time of stress for all of us. How can I trust someone who takes such a caviler attitude towards the lives of others?"

Aideen's eyes narrowed and flashed. "Lass," she began in an ice-cold voice. "I've been alive longer than anyone here. Don't you dare talk like I don't respect life. Even yours."

Shaw threw out her other hand only to have Aideen catch the fist. "Ye only get one shot," the faery flatly stated. "That's it."

"Let go," Shaw bit out.

Aideen raised an eyebrow and made a show of thinking about it.

"Well, I see it's not the just the males on this planet who have testosterone overload," Zev remarked dryly.

Aideen was still holding onto Shaw's hand but her smile slowly disappeared when she felt a piece of steel touching each shoulder. Shaw's own face had a slight smile as she saw both Connor and Duncan with their swords out and on either side of Aideen's neck. "I'd recommend letting the lass go," Connor coldly stated.

In a fast motion, Diedre had her crossbow out and aimed at the two Macleods. "You know, I actually took a man's head off with this once," she offhandedly remarked. "I'm pretty sure it could take two."

There was the sharp sound of several drawn sabers as Amanda, Richie and Maxine backed up the Macleods. Instantly the Knights were at Diedre's side, their own blades drawn with the "Kombateers" behind them. The Sunnydale team moved in to try to defuse the tense situation as Sparrow calmly looked on. "I don't suppose now would be a good time to suggest parley?"

Joyce and Steve shared a tired glance. "This is a waste of time," the Wanderer muttered.

"Get behind me."

The two looked at Zev in confusion. The alien was moving forward, his gaze hard. "I said, get behind me." Exchanging a look, the two stepped back. Always one to recognize an oncoming threat, Sparrow quickly joined them.

Zev stepped forward, took a deep breath, and then opened his mouth and once more unleashed that massive scream of his. It smashed into the group like a massive wave, knocking them about. It sent them moving forward, swords thrown about the room along with bodies, the group gasping for breath, stunned by the sudden move.

Zev stepped forward, fixing them all with a hard glare. "Listen to me and listen carefully. I don't care who did what to whom, I don't care how old you are, how many powers you have or how skilled you may be. What I am seeing right now is a group of people with the combined experience of several thousand years squabbling like children! Now you may be content to keep arguing while your planet gets destroyed but I'm not. I have seen *far* too many worlds die and I do not care to see it again. So get your acts together, all of you."

He glared at Shaw. "You say you're not going to trust her? You'd better trust her, because if you don't trust each other, you're both dead. My sister is crafty, as you've no doubt realized. If she sees weaknesses, she'll exploit them and take you out before you know it. So if you don't want to be a bigger piece of drow droppings than you already are, you'll put the ego behind and give some trust."

He looked from the (for once) speechless Shaw to Aideen. "And you. I may not have known these people long but, aside from a brief misunderstanding, they've struck me as relatively good people. Better than I would have thought. You're angry? Fine. You're upset? Fine. You want to trash them? Go ahead. But not here and not now. You should have waited and now this unit is compromised and that puts us all at a disadvantage right off the bat."

He backed away, glaring at the two women. "Get it together. Now. If you want your planet to survive." With that, he turned and marched out the room.

Joyce moved to follow him, pausing to look at the group. "You know," she said in a strong voice. "If you're going to fight together, you should at least be able to depend on each other. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing here?"

She followed Zev out and a long silence went up. "And Shaw has just taken second place in terms of verbally ripping someone a new asshole," Xander announced.

The Harper and the faery exchanged a long look. Everyone held their breath, waiting to see what would happen. Finally, Aideen spoke. "I notice you aren't saying anything about what I called you."

Shaw returned her look. "Coming from you, I take it as a compliment. But it was hardly original. I have been called worse, often by friends."

"And him calling you drow droppings?"

Shaw shrugged. "Original, but I take dark elves on a case-by-case basis. I can forgive that." She fixed her glare on Aideen. "What I do not forgive is what you said."

Steve shook his head as he stepped forward. "Shaw, didn't you hear anything Zev said?"

She nodded. "I heard everything." She fixed her gaze on Steve. "And I will let this go for now. But what I said stands. If she does anything else to any of you, she pays the price." She got to her feet and began marching off. "If you will excuse me, I have a father to think about rescuing and Gods protect anyone of any persuasion who tries to get in my way."

She stormed out of the room and the tension drained from it. Diedre looked toward Steve with some confusion. "Did she just tell us to stay out of the way during the fight?"

"Yes and no," Steve started.

"Care to explain that?"

"No, she wasn't telling *you* to stay out of her way. Yes, she was telling *us* to stay out of her way."

"What is with that woman?" Aideen murmured.

Steve sighed. "She and Roz got close before we found out Roz was the bad girl. She took it hard and Amy told me that Shaw's acting...strange." ††† †"How could you tell," Angus asked.

Diedre shot him a look before going back to Steve. "Amy's family to her. Why didn't she step in between them?"

"I tried," Amy said as she came up to them. "But she wouldn't listen and frankly, she was scaring me a little. So that should tell you how bad a mood she's in."

Aideen shook her head. "Lass needs to get a tight head on or it's going to be knocked off."

*****

Shaw was in the family room, checking over the weapons before her. She heard footsteps behind her but did not turn around until she heard a strong voice. "How are you holding up?"

Shaw turned with a look of surprise on her face. "Joyce? What are you doing here?"

The elder woman crossed her eyes as she gave the elf a solemn look. "I just wanted to talk, see how you're feeling."

"I think it should be obvious after what happened. Goddess, I cannot believe I am so stupid!" She slammed a fist on the table as she yelled.

"You are not stupid," Joyce said as she walked forward. "You're angry about Roz, you're scared for Ulric, you want to follow your heart..."

"You do not now how my heart feels right now, Joyce," Shaw said in a soft but cold voice.

"How do you know?" Joyce gently asked.

Shaw looked up at her with a fearful expression. "Because I cannot figure out how it feels." She closed her eyes tightly. "This entire affair...what Roz has done...It is like what happened with Jacob."

Joyce slowly nodded as she remembered the blind date gone horribly wrong. "Well, I can see how that can be rough..."

"That is just it," Shaw stated. "With Jacob, although he tried to kill me, he still was honest. To his own degree that is. He liked me in his own way and he never lied to me. Roz...All she has done since we met is lie to me. She acted like a friend, like she was interested in my life, like she liked me...and it was all a lie. She thought me unworthy of being near her, she treated playing with my emotions as a game. Not even Ares hurt me like that." Her face grew hard. "And that is why I need to do this. I want justice."

"Justice or revenge, Shaw? It's a thin line and you're in no rational state to discern it." The Harper turned away at Joyce's words and the mother felt a pain at her heart. "Tell me what's wrong." When Shaw didn't answer, Joyce stepped forward, sighing. "Shaw, I know these last few weeks have been rough on all of us. Outworld, you being cut off-----"

"It is NONE of that!" Shaw bit out. "It is that mother-wrenching, Goddess blasted scroll!"

Joyce instinctively turned around to make sure no one was within earshot. Turning back to Shaw, she stepped and kept her voice low. "Shaw, you have to be careful..."

"I am sick of being careful!" the Harper yelled back. "I am sick of looking at all of you and knowing that if it becomes knowledge the Game is real, I may have to kill any single one of you! Do you know how that feels?!"

"No," Joyce was forced to admit.

"And now you come in here and tell me that I want to follow my heart," Shaw went on. "Well, Joyce, it is what I am supposed to do. It was...even now, people do not understand. Even Amy, after I told her this."

"Told her what?" Joyce gently asked.

Shaw took a moment to collect herself, taking a deep breath before speaking. "One of the first things Mielikki told me, when I asked her how best I could serve her...was to follow my heart. Beyond all else, follow my heart."

"I see your point."

"Do you?" Shaw blinked back tears. "My heart says to kill Roz and it will remove the threat from my family and save Ulric. But it also says to fight alongside the others to save our world...and the whole business with the scroll..."

"Shaw, Amy and I talked," Joyce interrupted. "We know you'd have to follow your Goddess. We don't condemn you for it."

Shaw shook her head. "Joyce, you do not understand. Yes, I would follow her but my heart also says to stand by you. How...how can one follow her heart when it is torn in two directions?"

"Maybe you should ask Millie." As Shaw stiffened and looked up at her, Joyce gulped, worried she had just crossed a line. The two silently stared at each other before Shaw smiled wryly. "Now I know how certain when feel when others call Artemis 'Arty.'" She nodded. "Thank you, Joyce. How can you possibly reach people so effectively. I do not understand that."

Joyce smiled and gave the Harper a quick hug. "When you have children of your own...you will."

*****

The armory was abuzz as the various combatants prepared themselves. Sonya hefted a powerful rifle, a slight smile coming to her face as she checked the chamber and peered down the scope. "Nice," she remarked. "Really nice. I can definitely get used to these toys."

"I've never understood the twisted fascination some of you people have for these things," Jarod observed with a gaze at Sonya.

"If you've ever been a Marine-----"

"I have been a Marine," Jarod interjected. "In fact, I've been in every branch of the military at one time or another."

"Makes it hell for us at Army-Navy games," Parker quipped.

"Mad, mad, they're all mad!" Zev muttered.

"Preaching to the choir, laddie," Aideen sighed.

Zev glanced up and down the rack of weaponry. "Weapons may not be enough against this force. I hope you're all skilled as well."††††

Connor looked Zev up and down. "What skills do you have?"

Zev nodded toward the Scoobies. "It took all of them to put me down. What does that tell you?"

Connor stared at him and then at Steve, smiling. "He'll do."

"Don't assume Roz is just a twisted brain," Zev added. "She can fight as well." He glanced to Steve. "You mentioned the Yautja earlier, how she fought one. Was it an easy fight?"

"Not as I can tell," Steve admitted.

"Had to use a lot of weaponry to win?"

"From what I can tell, yes."

Zev nodded. "Roz killed five of them with her bare hands."

Steve was amazed to hear that. "Five of them? Doesn't that intimidate you?"

"Not really." A small, wicked smile came to Zev's lips. "I killed eight."

Steve stared at him. "Eight members of the deadliest species of hunters in the galaxy? You know what you call that?"

"Yes. A damn inconvience."

As Steve simply stared, Duncan studied the alien. "What other skills do you have?"

Zev look at him, smiled and, in perfect Scottish of Duncan's youth, answered. "I don't like to brag..."

Duncan blinked. "You speak the old tongue?"

Zev shrugged. "Little piece of the instant history lesson I got on your world. I can speak most anything from Arabic to Sanskrit."

"Even though the last language has been dead as long as I've been alive?" Methos asked.

"Now he tells me," Zev murmured.

<Man, this guy is a grouch.> Sarah thought.

<Gotta go with you there> Duke agreed.

Zev looked at the two. "You live with these people, you know how they can be."

Everyone, human and animal, stared at him. "Wait..." Willow started. "You can hear them?"

"Low-level telepathic abilities for lower species of animal."

<HEY!>

"So, you can understand them?" Cordelia marveled.

"Yes," Zev confirmed. "And with them, at least, I can actually be assured an intelligent conversation."

*****

Faith sighed as she knocked on the door leading to Shaw's room. She had a feeling Shaw wasn't going to be in a talking mood. But she intended to change that. Hearing no answer, she opened the door and walked in.

Shaw was slipping a dagger onto her bed to go with the five already there. She had on her special armor with gauntlets, her face hard and cold. "Shaw?" Faith asked. "You...um....you gonna be all right?"

"Perfectly," came the clipped answer.

"Right." Faith carefully stepped in to regard her. "Ah, Shaw, I was talking to Amy and Joyce and..well...." She sighed. "You're scaring us, Hunter."

"I simply know what needs to be done," Shaw said, still not facing the Slayer.

"Killing Roz?"

"Exactly." Shaw kept her eyes on her weapons. "Killing her removes the threat and therefore the danger to us all. So, if need be, I will kill her."

"Shaw....you can't."

Shaw spun on her, her eyes afire. "Do not tell me------"

"The hell I don't!" Faith stared right back with her own inner flame. "You think I don't know the real reason you're pissed, Shaw? Huh? It's not her you're mad at, it's yourself! For falling for her line, for getting close to her and trusting her while all the while she was laughing at you! You don't want to kill her for the guys or for the planet or for what's she's done in the past, you wanna do it for yourself!"

Shaw's face was so tight, veins were standing out. "You could not understand-------"

"News flash! She did the same damn thing to me!" Faith's face was just as tight. "I was close to her too, or thought I was. I trusted her and you know that doesn't come easy for me. I trusted her, I liked her, I told her stuff even you guys don't know. All that talk about being on the run, about never getting close to people, it got to me, formed a bond."

Faith's face was softened in the pain. ""Leastways, I thought it did til that miserable bitch showed her true colors and ripped me up. So, yeah, I wanna kill her too, I admit." She looked Shaw in the eye. "Difference is, despite what Zev told us, she's still human..." She paused. "Okay, she's not a demon and I can't cross that line."

"I will then." Shaw was still glaring with that cold expression on her face. "And it will not be for myself, Faith. I am not that petty. It will be for Ulric as well. It is my fault he is in their hands, I should have kept a better eye on him, studied Roz more..."

"Hey, hey, don't start the guilt trip," Faith interrupted. "Amy, Will, Jenny and Giles are forming a conga line kicking themselves over not even thinking of doing any truth spells on her. Hell, if I hadn't stopped those two vamps from putting the bite on her, we wouldn't even be in this mess. It's not my fault, it ain't yours, it's hers. So you're upset about Ulric, okay, I understand. But that doesn't give you the right to kill her."

"She is a rehensible monster and it is our duty to destroy such things, no matter what form they take."

"That's not what you told me when you stopped me from staking those two would-be rapists last month," Faith calmly said.

Shaw broke off, thrown by Faith's comment. "Faith...I..." She shook her head. "That is not the same."

"Isn't it?" Faith asked with a raised eyebrow as she stepped forward. "I saw you abused, drugged, ready to be raped by a human. Not a demon or a vamp, not a soulless monster, a thinking, living person with a soul who just wanted 'a good time.'" Faith's face was tight, her lip trembling a bit as she remembered that moment. "I wanted to kill them but you stopped me. I was in the heat of passion and anger at the time, Shaw, so I thank God you cooled me down." She sobered as she gazed at the elf.

"You're actually planning to, in cold blood, murder this woman and let's beat around the bush, that's what it's gonna be." Faith was right in front of Shaw by now, pleading in her eyes. "You stopped me from making the biggest mistake of my life, Shaw. I'm not going to let you do it instead."

Shaw gazed down at her feet as Faith's words got to her, in addition to Amy's and Joyce's. She finally looked up, her face drawn. "She hurt me," she whispered.

"Me too," Faith informed her. "That's sort of why I'm saying don't kill her." An evil smile came to the Slayer's face. "Hurting her is gonna be soooo much better..."

*****

Steve took a deep breath of the clear night air. There were plenty of preparations left to be done inside but he needed a quick break. He'd been on high alert all day and the tension was showing. While he did his best to hide it from the others, Steve had a bad feeling about this as well. He was also just as angry at not seeing Roz's true nature and at being taken in as he had been. *I almost helped her destroy the world. Not exactly living up to my champion moniker.* He paused and sniffed at the air, an odd scent coming to him. He walked around and to the back porch, staring at the figure on the steps. "What are you doing?"

Zev glanced up at him. The alien was sitting on the steps with an odd long-stemmed object protruding from his mouth. Steve saw the dark smoke coming from the bulbous end and realized it was a pipe. "I'm sorry," Zev said. "You'd prefer I not? I know it's somewhat out of fashion here nowadays."

"No, no, it's all right." Steve moved toward him and sat on the step slightly above him, looking at the pipe. "What is that stuff?"

"Malardoan leaf," Zev replied, blowing out a long trail of smoke. "One of the better weeds, I've found. Just the sort of thing I need when I want to think."

Steve nodded. "May I?"

Zev looked at his outstretched hand, shrugged and handed the pipe over to him. Steve place the end in his mouth and took a long inhale. He removed the pipe and blew out his smoke. He nodded, handing the pipe back to Zev, then started hacking and coughing loudly. Zev suppressed a chuckle as Steve wiped tears from his eyes. "Yes, I imagine it would have a kick for humans."

Steve swallowed, trying to get his breath back before speaking. "God, how do you stand that?"

Zev studied his pipe before softly speaking. "I've withstood far worse." He glanced at Steve. "Is this everyone then? The entire force you can muster?"

Steve sighed. "As much as we can get. Tried Stony Man but they've got their forces spread out on other missions. And I just had an argument with Horace at Bureau 13. Seems something's come up on his end, he won't say what but apparantly, they can't interfere."

"So....a group like this is all that stands between this planet and extinction." Zev took another drag from his pipe. "Not exactly the fighting crusade I was hoping for."

Steve looked back at him, then away, not really sure how to touch on this topic. He rubbed his hands together as he absently spoke. "You know, it just occured to me...When you found out that Buffy and I were lovers, you didn't react all that badly to it."

"Should I have?"

"Well, let's just say I've had my fair share of punches to the face and condemnations for being with someone younger than me," Steve answered with a rueful grin.

Zev chuckled. "Mr. St. Wolf, I have been to worlds where taboos that would boggle your mind are accepted behavior. Besides...." He looked Steve in the eye, his expression serious. "You love her. She loves you. I can see that. Who am I to judge that?"

Steve nodded a silent thanks. He watched Zev sit back, taking another drag of his pipe. "You sound like you speak from experience."

Zev blew twin smoke out of his nostrils before speaking. "I had a wife once. A beautiful woman whom I loved more than my own life itself. She was my light. My heart. My soul." He tapped his pipe against a shoe as he went on. "When she died...a lot of me died with her. And then my world died. My people. While I went on. All alone." His voice was almost a whisper. "And not a day has gone by when I don't wish I could be with them."

Steve peered at him, not liking the direction this was going. As if reading his thoughts, Zev stated. "I don't have a death wish. If I was that tired of living, I would have ended it all decades ago." He brought his pipe back up and took another drag from it. "You don't know what it's like to outlive your entire culture, Steven. It's not a pleasant feeling at all. It leaves an emptiness to your soul that won't die. Even if we stop her...it will still be there."

"And if we don't stop her?" Steve softly asked.

Zev gazed up at the stars. "Then...at least it will be good to finally be with my people again."

Steve stared at him for a long moment. Then, he looked up to the night sky. "Where is it?"

Zev pointed the handle of his pipe toward the stars. "About forty light years that direction. A lifeless husk encircling our star. Almost nothing left to look at."

"A dead planet."

"Yes," Zev softly said.

Steve gazed at him. "Your planet's dead. Your people are dead. Your wife is dead." He leaned in and slapped Zev on the shoulders to force the alien to look at him. "You're alive, Zev. Be a survivor."

Zev returned the gaze and Steve could see the light of respect dawn in his eyes. "If I didn't know better, Steven," he wryly commented. "I'd swear you had Reudian blood in you."

"Worse," Steve smiled back. "Texan."

And the joined laughter cut the tension between them.

*****

Steve was standing at the doorway of the living room, facing the assembled team. All of them were loaded for bear, armor for those who wanted it...which did not include Sub-Zero or Sparrow who seemed rather blasť about the whole thing. All had hard and prepared looks on their faces as they listened to Steve speak.

"Giles just told us how we've got some leeway," the leader began. "That can be used to our advantage, if only briefly. We're not sure how many demons Roz may have gotten but you can bet she'll do her best to woo the underworld of Sunnydale to her side. So we're talking some major action."

"I don't like this," Sonya said. "Going right down the main street to the school, wide open with no side groups."

"Neither do I," Steve agreed. "But Roz has made it clear that any sneak attacks we try will have global consequences. So we have to play this her way. Straight on and meet them. Remember, we do have an ace up our sleeve."††††

"So, let's get going," Buffy said.

"I'm going with," Joyce declared.

"Mom, no," Buffy stated. "This is going to be bad."

"I went through Outworld and the switch and handled it, Buffy," her mother pointed out. "I still have some protection magics around me. I care about Shaw and what that woman did just me almost as bad. I want a piece of her too."

Steve coughed as he stepped forward. "Joyce, you helped us smoke out Roz. I think you've done enough."

Joyce raised an eyebrow. "Is that what this group is about, Steve? Doing just enough and then pulling back? Or is it about giving it your all no matter what may happen?"

"Now her I like," Sparrow observed.

"Shut up," Buffy, Faith, Kendra and Zev all barked.

"So it's us against an army of demons and an alien sociopath with no sneak attacks or backup?" Methos sardonically observed. "Lovely, it's a suicide mission."

"We're Section Seven," Steve broke in. "We don't do suicide missions."

"Well, you only live once."

"In this town, that's a point open to debate," Xander remarked.

Steve gazed over the group, making sure they were all with him. "Let's go," he said, motioning to the door. They followed him out, weapons up and ready, swords sharpened and guns cocked.

The night sky was cloudy but no rumbles of thunder or signs of rain. Sparrow paused to take a deep breath. "Ah, lovely. I can already smell the signs of battle."

"Let me shoot him just once," Kate muttered to Marc. "Just once."

Before Marc could reply, the clouds briefly parted and moonlight shone down. As it struck him, Sparrow changed. In the literal blink of an eye, he transformed from a flesh and blood human to a walking skeleton yet his sardonic smirk still seemed in place.

"Shit!" Cordelia hissed in surprise. Her reaction was echoed by many of the others, weapons held up toward Sparrow, who seemed utterly unaware of them. The clouds once more came, the moonlight faded and Sparrow returned to his human form. He paused to unwind a flask from his pocket, took a swig, then turned to look back at the startled group. "What is it?"

Steve closed his eyes and shook his head. "How do they even find me...?"

*****

Sunnydale High School
1154 Hours PST ††††

Ulric futilely struggled against his bonds. He was tied to a chair in the middle of the library, across from the site which he knew to be the Hellmouth. A series of torches now surrounded it, all burning as Roz stared onto the floor, which was covered with several varieties of blood and various powders. Some demons and vampires watched a mix of curiosity and anticipation as the alien carefully paced the circle.

She looked toward Garrow, who was watching with interest, his clerical collar gone but still wearing his dark robes. "Five minutes till you can kiss this place goodbye," she observed.

To Ulric's dismay, Garrow actually smiled. "I've waited this long. I can wait longer."

Roz studied him carefully. "No guilt at all over helping me with what I'm doing, padre?"

"You're ushering out the old and bringing in the new. Clearing the way for a new way of life and creating a new age."

"That's what I like about you, Garrow," Roz said with a grin. "You're the only man I know who can make the end of the world sound so poetic."

She looked up as a vampire entered. "They're coming," he stated.

With a nod, Roz strode forward, glancing back at Garrow. "You know what to do."

The priest nodded back and Roz strode out through the hallways of the school.

*****

She emerged in the midst of a large pack of demons of various types, all looking to her, then back out at the approaching footsteps. Roz coughed to get their attention. "Ladies. Gentlemen. And whatever the hell the rest of you are. This is the day you have long awaited! The day many of you have, if you'll pardon the expression, prayed for. The day when the world ends and you take over! Feeding frenzies and unlimited chaos are to be the norm! Death, destruction, decadence, mayhem..." She paused and choked. "Sorry....I promised myself I wouldn't cry.."

"Oh, we'll get to that," a loud voice called out. Roz turned to see the Section fighters marching down the street toward her. She showed no fear at all at their presence, unlike her demons who muttered darkly at the sight of the weaponry and the confident expressions before them.

"Well, well, well...fancy meeting you here," Roz smiled.

Steve's eyes were narrow as he gazed up at her. "Give it up. Now."

"Sorry, don't think so." Roz glanced at her watch. "In thirty seconds...you're dead."

Giles smiled as he stepped up. "Yes, about that...it seems you didn't read the fine print on that spell of yours, dear lady. It is not instantaneous."

Roz stared at him. "What?"

Giles smirked. "Yes. Once it is enacted, it will take at least thirty-seven minutes to kick in."

She blinked in disbelief. "Thirty-seven minutes? Are you sure about that?"

He nodded, the smirk still on his face.

Roz took a long moment to digest that, then shrugged. "Well, good thing I cast it thirty-six minutes and fifty-five seconds ago."

For five seconds, a long shocked silence came over the area. Then, the rumble began. Roz laughed as a blast of fiery energy erupted from the roof of the high school. Spilling out of it were demons. Not just the usual types the Scoobies were used to but ones of various sizes and shapes, all of them lethal-looking. Winged demons took flight, others strode like herds and the pack of vampires and demons on the steps erupted in cheers and howls.

As the fire of the Hellmouth's opening illuminated her and filled the dark night, Roz's face was split by a mad grin. "Game's over, bro. I win."

*****

Part twenty-one: In which farewells are made and a homecoming achieved.

"Well, you gotta admit, the place cleans up nice."

Cal grinned as he looked upon Varran. It had taken some magical doing on top of hard work but the city was not only mostly repaired but looked much brighter. White and bright paint dominated formally dark buildings, the architecture softened to look more inviting and comforting. Banners flew from towers and the people seemed much more alive than they had been before.

The Pantheon were standing in the redone throne room of the palace. It too was much more inviting with brighter colors, a proud tapestry on one end and the throne somewhat smaller. The group were back in the clothing they had been wearing when they had been spirited away what seemed like years before. All watched with respect the ceremony before them.

Mel stood before the throne, dressed in a dark green robe and flowing cape, his head bowed. With reverence, Ujaki slid the crown upon his head and backed away. Melroy stood there, taking it in, feeling different than he had before. He knew he looked it as well. Stronger, more confident, more sure, more...regal.

He backed away and looked at the large crowd waiting. He held out his hand and Eril, now wearing a yellow uniform, handed him a jeweled scepter. He balanced it in his hands and then rose it high over his head.

The room erupted in cheers as the people took in their new king. The Pantheon joined in the applause, even Robin and Liam, the two dressed in what they considered finery...which meant they stood out quite a bit.

Mel waited until the cheering had died down before nodding. "Thank you," he softly said. "I...I can't tell you how this feels right now. To be here...in this place...after all this time..."

Ujaki smiled at him. "You shall do well. I know it."

Mel looked at him with a strong gaze. "I will be. If you'll be on my council."

Ujaki blinked in surprise. "Sire...I am no longer a soldier."

"I know," Mel told him. "That's why I need you. I need someone who knows war and someone who knows peace. A mind that balances that would be a great asset." He looked to Dullrena. "And so would yours."

The woman was actually taken aback at the suggestion. "Me? Why? No offense but you and I have not exactly been the best of friends."

"That's exactly why," Mel said. "I don't want to surround myself with yes-men...or women." His eyes briefly glanced to a smiling Maximus. "I want someone who won't be afraid to tell me if I'm wrong. And whose opinion I'll respect."

Dullrena looked at him and then smiled in true pleasure. "Very well. I'll accept."

Mel nodded and glanced over toward Bekor. "That goes for you as well."

The being nodded his rocky head. "You may count on me."

"Well, how about that?" Sean remarked. "Not every day we get to see a government formed."

"Well, actually------"

"SHUT UP, ROBIN AND LIAM!"

Mel looked over to where the Earthlings stood. "Any advice you want to add?"

"If you do a Constitution, leave out the whole 'right to bear arms' thing, it'll just cause problems," Katie suggested.

Nicky sighed. "Katie, I love you but this really isn't the time to start that debate again..."

Kim sighed. "Much as I hate to say it...make sure you give some rights to criminals."

"And if you don't make it clear everyone's created equal and get the same rights and privileges, I'm coming to kick your ass," Cal added.

Marybeth looked to Lucy. "How about you? You want to suggest anything?"

Lucy shrugged. "I'll figure it out along time."

There was a long silence as everyone looked at her. "You're not going back," Elizabeth stated.

Lucy shrugged again. "Like you said, I'm dead in Chicago. Might as well have some place to hang out. The further away from any other Immortal the better."

Elizabeth stepped forward to face her. "You mean it? You truly want to stay?"

Lucy nodded.

Elizabeth's eyes briefly flickered toward Mel and then back to Lucy. "I don't suppose there's another factor in your staying?"

Lucy's face took on a light blush. "Well..." She shrugged. "Hey, I have a shot at something with a king. I figured a Brit would appreciate that."

Elizabeth laughed and gave her young charge a brief hug. "Good luck to you then."

"Thanks, Elizabeth," Lucy said. "For everything."

The two were suddenly aware of another pair of arms wrapped around both of them.

"SHIRLEY!"

Dullrena looked at the Earthlings. "Well, it looks like this is our time to part."

"Yeah, lovely as this is, we do have to get back to our own world," Sean told her.

The warrior woman nodded. "Well, this has been...interesting."

Maximus nodded back. "Well, I assure you, we'll always remember you, you cold-hearted, egotistic, uncaring, arrogant..."

"Self-serving, selfish, sucker-punching..." Nicky added.

"Badly dressed, leg-chafing, permanent bad hair day..." Katie interjected.

"No impulse-control, cheap-ass Xena knock-off..." Marybeth threw in with a grin.

"Stuck-up, dresses like a refuge from Baywatch..." Kim's turn went.

"Maniacal, own shadow is terrified of you when you wake up in the morning..." was Sean's contribution.

"Immature, overrated, in love with your own abilities and voice, infantile..." Elizabeth inserted.

Shirley let out a sudden stream of curses in Dullrena's own tongue, the woman blanching with each one, then announced, "Take it home, Cal!"

The black man grinned as he stepped forward. "Tight-assed, tight-tited, no style, no rhythm, no pride, no heart, no MAN, alien warrior BAAAAAAYAATCCH!!!"

Dullrena's jaw unhinged in absolute disbelief as Robin and Liam both had tears in their eyes. "They learn so fast..." Robin whispered.

*****

"Are you sure this will work?" Maximus asked. Wind lightly blew back his hair as he and the others stared at the glowing vortex before them. They were in the main lab of the palace, the place where Fahn's technicians had brought them to this world. It hadn't taken very long for Robin and Liam to help them figure out how to put the devices back into working order and give them the boost needed to do the job right.

"They got you here, they can get you back," Mel stated. "I'd stake my life on it."

"You mean our lives," Kim remarked.

"Relax, will you?" Marybeth urged her.

"Easy for you to say, you can fly in space," Kim observed.

"Hey, I think you can too."

Kim frowned with surprise. "Say...guess I could, couldn't I?"

"I prefer to have you a bit more grounded," Sean said, putting an arm around his partner.

<CHEAP POP!> Cal and Shirley both said telepathically.

"Oh, God, that's going to get annoying," Katie groaned.

The portal was stabilizing as the group faced it. Mel stood by it, looking them over, his face tight. "Thank you," he softly said. "For..." He just held up his hands.

"It was our pleasure," Maximus stated. He gave Mel an affectionate pat on the shoulder, took a deep breath, then marched into the portal and was swallowed up. One by one, the rest of the group followed, a flash going out with each entry. Marybeth was last, giving Mel a smile and then giving Lucy a wink. She vanished and the portal went immediately after her.

Lucy and Mel looked at one another. "So....now what?" the Immortal asked.

Mel scratched his chin.. "Well, I suppose I can give you the 79th floor to use."

"Which room?"

"The whole floor."

Lucy stared at him. "You're giving me the whole floor? All to myself?"

Mel smiled at her. "Hey...it's good to be the king."

*****

Navy Pier
Chicago, Illinois
1543 Hours Central Time - May 25th, 1999

The vortex faded into nothingness as the group took a long moment to view their surroundings. One look at the famous skyline, highlighted by the afternoon sun and they knew where they were. "Sweet Home Chicago, I love ya!" Cal screamed as he fell to his knees and laughed with joy. Sean and Kim hugged each other as Shirley and Marybeth also laughed with happiness.

Elizabeth took in a deep breath of the crisp lakeside air as she turned to the McDaniels. She frowned as she saw both of them standing with eyes closed, expressions of rapture on their faces. "What are you two doing?"

"Shhhh..." Katie held up a hand. "I can feel rivers in Holland flowing. I can hear Niagara Falls. I can taste oranges growing in Florida."

"I can see birds flying in Peru," Nicky added. "I can feel horses riding in the plains of Nebraska. I can hear fish swimming over the wreck of the *Titanic*. This is incredible."

"I know, I know," Marybeth grinned as she looked to the sky. "Aw, man, I can actually see the moon from here! I gotta try this out!"

Liam chuckled as he looked at her. "No longer the mousy little girl, eh?"

"Nope," Marybeth grinned back. "I'm the mouse that roared. And I like it."

"So..." Kim said with a grin. "Should we head to Disney World?"

Cal sniffed. "Only if we drive."

Katie blinked. "How are you supposed to drive from Chicago to Disney World?"

"Well, you could take the I-65 south to Nashville, then the I-24 south to I-75 south to the Florida Turnpike, then just take I-4 west straight through Orlando unless you decide to stop off in Atlanta, in which case, you'd take the side exit off the I-24 and hook up with the I-95 north, then after you're done, check back with the Florida Turnpike until you hit the I-4 east."

There was silence before Sean said what they were all thinking to Shirley. "There is something freakishly wrong with you, you know that?"

Cal closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Man...So much magic on this planet...." He opened his eyes to look toward Robin and Liam. "I think I get where you guys were coming for earlier. This is a lot of responsibility."

"Ah, ye can handle it, lad," Liam assured him. "Look who gave ye the power."

Cal rolled his eyes. "That ain't exactly a sterling recommendation." He glanced toward Shirley who seemed down. "What's wrong, Shirl?"

The woman shrugged. "Well...we just saved an entire planet AND got some kick-ass super powers to boot! I was hoping for a bit more of a welcome going home for some reason..."

"God bless all here!"

"That'll do." With everyone else, Shirley turned to look at the woman who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She was clad in a dark green robe, her long and brilliant curly orange hair framing her beautiful face, which carried a wide smile.

Robin and Liam both stared in disbelief at the woman. "Callie?" They both asked in surprise.

Callieway Burton smiled at the two faeries. "Hello, Robin, Liam."

"What are ye doing here?" Liam asked.

"Oh, wanted to drop by and say hello to the Pantheon," the seer said. She looked over the humans and smiled. "Well, well, you may work out well after all."

"Who are-----"

"I'm Callieway Burton, Katie. Liam's four time ex."

"Oh, brother."

"How right you are, Nicky."

"Oh, yeah, he mentioned you..." Shirley remarked. "Hey, do you-----"

"Know the secret of life?" Callie shook her head. "I'm afraid you only find that one out when you die."

"Oh, come on!" Shirley whined. "I don't want to wait that long!"

"You can't wait six weeks?" Callie asked with puzzlement. She watched Shirley's face fall in dismay, then burst out laughing. "I'm sorry, I never get tired of that joke..."

As Liam laughed, Robin sighed. "Callie, what are you really doing here?"

"Well, it seems the group back in Sunnydale have run into a spot of trouble," the Irishwoman explained.

"What sort of trouble?"

"Well, they were helping this alien woman escape her evil alien brother but it turns out it was the woman who was evil, her brother was good and now said woman is about to use a crystal to open the Hellmouth and turn Earth into a demon's paradise."

Robin and Liam simply nodded in calm understanding as the humans all stared at her. "Four times, huh?" Kim remarked. "That explains so much..."

Liam held up a hand. "Callie, give it to us in just key words."

"Fine. The, end, world and of."

"When's it going down?" Robin said.

"Midnight," Callie answered.

Robin nodded and looked to Liam. "Grab some pizza?"

"Sure."

"Um, hello?" Marybeth called out. "A psycho is out to destroy the world! Shouldn't we take care of that right now?"

"And ruin a perfectly good chance to make a big dramatic save?" Robin asked in mock horror. "Perish."

"Anything we need to know?" Marybeth asked.

"Well, demons are generally mean and tough but have no redeeming qualities so you don't have to hold back."

Marybeth's eyes went open. "You mean let loose no matter what? No holding back?" She grinned. "Oooooh....this is going to be fun."

<I think I liked her better when she was the shy kid> Kim remarked to Sean.

"We're going to be fighting demons?" Shirley asked. "Wicked."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Easy for you to say. You've got powers. I don't."

Robin and Liam looked at her, then at each other. "What do you think?" Liam asked.

Robin glanced at his watch, did a quick mental computation and nodded. "Little pressed...but I think we got time."

Elizabeth appeared apprehensive as the two turned back to her. "What are you two maniacs on about now?"

"Doc," Robin said with a sly smile. "Get ready for one hell of a physical therapy."

The Englishwoman peered at them with suspicion. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well, remember when we were telling ye about the Amazons?"

Elizabeth immediately shook her head. "Absolutely not. I am a fine Catholic and I will NOT forsake God."

"We're not asking you to," Robin clarified. "But you know how I gave those guys my empowerment?"

Elizabeth stared at him. "You're not serious."

"No worshiping any God other than your own," Liam informed her. "No theological worries, it'll just give ye the physical edge you need."

Elizabeth still seemed unsure. "What effects does it have, aside from the physical ones?"

"Well, for beginners, you get to show up Connor and Duncan."

"Right, let's go," Elizabeth declared.

<Nice job, laddie.>

<Sometimes, it's so easy, I'm almost ashamed of myself.>

"Boys." The two turned back to Callie. The Irish seer had a worried look on her face as she stepped up to them. "I think ye deserve to know. When ye get there, Shaw's going to be in a bit of a bloodlust. She wants this woman dead and I don't know if even you two could stop her."

"Why?" Liam testily demanded. "What did this woman do?"

Instead of answering verbally, Callie allowed her mind to touch the two men. Instantly, the faces of the two faeries darkened so much that everyone else instinctively took a step back. "Okay," Cal announced. "All those here who are really, really freaked the fuck out just looking at these two?" Everyone raised a hand.

"Oh..." Robin hissed. "She has just made the list."

Liam turned to the others, his eyes glowing from rage and power. "When we get there, any demons are yours. But no one, and I mean no one, touches that bitch except us."

"I wouldn't even dram of depriving you of your joy," Maximus assured him.

"Not joy." Robin's face was still hard. "She messed with our family. And we take care of our own."

"So...just what's the plan?" Sean asked.

"The only one that matters," Maximus answered, his face tight. "We save the frickin' day."

TBC

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